Triple threat singer, songwriter and monster guitarist Richie Kotzen’s latest solo release “Peace Sign” marks his 20th solo album in as many years. An all around gifted musician, his style ranges from rock to jazz to blues with some pop and soul thrown in for good measure – clearly there are no boundaries when it comes to his creativity.
Breaking through with his instrumental albums in the late 80’s Kotzen started to make some noise around the same time as some other greats that were part of the ‘new crop’ of shredder guitarists (Tony Macalpine, Marty Friedman, Greg Howe and Jason Becker) who helped usher us into the 90’s with their amazing fretwork. Kotzen’s guitar playing in particular made many take notice and music fans may recall his time spent playing guitar with Poison and Mr. Big. Although these gigs opened some doors for him it’s undoubtedly his solo work that truly fuels his soul.
Richie recently embarked on a North American tour in support of “Peace Sign.” hitting up some parts of the country that he hasn’t seen in awhile. His stops include a show on May 27th at Showcase Live in Foxboro, MA which will mark his first solo show ever in the state. I had a chance to catch up with Richie just four days into his current U.S tour to talk about his career, the tour and Ronnie James Dio.
Interviewed by: Roger Scales
It appears as if you have done some pretty extensive touring in support of ‘Peace Sign” during the fall/winter of 2009 in Europe. You just got back from some South American dates in April and now you’re headed out for your first full US solo tour ever. How have the shows been so far?
It’s been going very well so far. We are 5 shows into the tour right now and the audience seems to be digging everything so far. I get asked a lot on the road “what’s it like to be playing to different audiences every night?” At the end of the day people LOVE good music.. period. I didn’t even know where I was playing last night but I know we got a great response. It could have been Japan or Latin America or Europe when people are into it they are into it we just want to get up there and play.
What do you find is the biggest difference between US audiences and other audiences throughout the rest of the world?
Ultimately there really isn’t a major difference. In other words, if I play in Argentina there may be more people in a given room because I’ve played more shows there over the years. So yeah it’s loud and crazy and they sing all the words to my songs because they are passionate but in general there really is no huge difference. The audience just responds to what you’re doing. There is no language barrier in music because the audience can feel your vibe regardless. I will say that in Sao Paulo Brazil I do have a special connection with that audience where they are singing every song and they know all the words and they have been the loudest on this tour so far.
You have been offering VIP meet/greet experiences on this US tour. Do you feel it’s important as an artist to connect with your fans on a personal level?
Yes I do and I’m really enjoying it. I have written a lot of songs through the years and it’s nice to hear from the fans directly. They ask questions about what I was thinking about when I wrote this song or how this song may have affected them at a certain stage of their life. It touches me to be able to do that and connect with the fans at these shows. For instance last night I was sitting down with a guy and he’s talking about all kinds of things that have happened to him how music had got him though it. When I hear that it hits me in a hard way. It means a lot to me to be able to do that for someone, it’s very emotional. I love being able to meet people who are listening to music I created in my garage, or in my bedroom when I’m recording. I want to hear from the people and what their lives are about and what they think about as they support me.
Do you find it difficult to pick a set list after a career spanning music as far back as 20 years?
It can be difficult but we don’t have a set list. What we do is we have a collection of songs that we know how to play. There are about 28 or 30 songs that we have learned as a band and we just pull from that. I have a sense how long we have been on stage and when it’s time to call it a night. I call tunes while on stage on the fly. We have been opening up the show pretty much the same way every night. Then there are a series of songs that follow each other at the opener then I just start to call songs on stage based on how I’m feeling, based on how my voice feels, based on how the audience feels, and it works out really well this way.
There have been a lot of big name solo guitar artists who have been able to transition to a band setting: Ted Nugent in Damn Yankees. Joe Satraiani is currently doing it with Chickenfoot. You have done it with both Poison and Mr. Big. What’s the biggest difference between being in a band setting and being a solo artist?
It’s really like being an actor. When I was in the band setting I was playing a role really. As a guitar player in a band setting I’m creating but I’m creating with other people. My role is one related to the instrument itself. When I’m doing my own thing it’s all about me. I’m writing the songs, I’m producing the record. I’m playing on the record and not just the guitar but other instruments as well. So it’s really a more true representation of who I am. It’s tough to get a true feel for me as an artist when I’m just playing guitar on a record.
You have an extremely varied background of styles and influences on all of your records did your parents have a musical background?
No not in the sense of being musicians but in a sense of appreciating music they did; my mother was one of those types of people that was really into rock n’ roll. She saw The Beatles on their first tour of the US. She saw the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix a few times, Janis Joplin. She shared with me all her old records and stories from back in the day so I was constantly being exposed to that growing up. My father on the other hand was into R&B. His record collection was totally different. Even to this day folks tell me I’m a rock guy with a soul sound.
What do you find to be a bigger challenge guitar playing or lead vocals?
I don’t find either one of those two things to be a challenge or hard to do because that’s what I have been doing for 30 plus years. I’ve been playing music most of my life. The challenge is learning new things in this business so I can continue to grow. Touring is a challenge. There are days when you just want to lay down on a bed that isn’t moving or hitting bumps in the road! Sometimes you have to dig down deep and connect with your audience through your songs when maybe the night before it wasn’t so easy for you. The human element or the physical element while touring can be a challenge. If I was just the guitar player I could get up at any time and play. But as a vocalist if I don’t get enough sleep or I drink too much the night before or smoke it changes the instrument. So it’s important as a vocalist to take super good care of your voice while on the road.
Is there a big difference between practicing the guitar for technique and spending quality time with the guitar just playing it?
That’s a very good question. Most of what I do is just playing the guitar. Even when I was learning guitar I was not a regimented practice to a schedule kind of kid. You can even hear it in my playing now as an adult. I would just pick up my guitar and play and maybe elaborate on one piece to the next. I never used a metronome and just played scales over and over again just to speed it up. I was not that kind of a guy. I did go back and learn theory and scales and learned certain cords and stuff but basically I learned from playing with other people. I would fall asleep in bed just playing guitar all night.
Do you think that games such as Guitar Hero or Rock Band hurt or help someone who may be interested in creating music or playing an instrument?
I can’t see how it would hurt anything because it’s fun and cool and anyone can pick that thing up and play with it. If it gets you excited and you then want to go out and pick up a real guitar I think that’s real positive. Anything that lures people into playing any instrument is positive. It also exposes kids to different music form all different eras that may not be exposed to otherwise.
Is there a band or an artist that you have never played with or toured with that you have always wanted to but never have?
I was fortunate to be able to open for The Rolling Stones in Japan in 2006 for 5 shows. It was told to me that previously the Stones had never had an opening act in Japan and that I was the first one. All sold out packed stadiums it was insane. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to top that!!
As an east coast guy I’m looking forward to your upcoming show here in MA. Do you have any New England connections at all? Any ties to the area that maybe we have never read about?
I do have a very close friend who went to Berklee and now teaches at Berklee but no family otherwise. I think I only played maybe one time near Boston when I was in Poison in 1993.
We recently lost a true rock Icon with the passing of Ronnie James Dio. What are your memories of Ronnie?
When I was a kid we had a cover band and there was this girl lead singer and she sung just like Ronnie James Dio so I used to play a lot of those older songs back in the day. He was just an incredible singer and his influence on other artists. When I hear Chris Cornell I can hear the Ronnie James Dio influence on just the way he pronounces his words for instance. Having the power and the high range he was one of the most powerful rock singers that ever lived, just unmistakable talent that may never be duplicated. I felt that way when Michael Jackson died too. They both did great things for music in different ways and I’m just trying to celebrate their lives my remembering what they did for this industry.
Do you have a message to the fans out there that more than likely have never seen you in concert?
We are so happy to be on the road in the states. I have not played more than a handful of shows here since 1994 and we are so thrilled with those who have come down to see us so far. I look forward to seeing each and every one of you very soon.
2010 PEACE SIGN Tour Dates
05/18/10 Richie Kotzen in West Springfield, VA Jaxx Night Club
05/19/10 Richie Kotzen in Philadelphia, PA The North Star Bar
05/21/10 Richie Kotzen in Wyomissing, PA The Works
05/22/10 Richie Kotzen in Pittsburgh, PA Diesel Club Lounge
05/23/10 Richie Kotzen in Mount Vernon, NY The Bayou
05/25/10 Richie Kotzen in New York City Highline Ballroom
05/26/10 Richie Kotzen in New Haven, CT Toad’s Place
05/27/10 Richie Kotzen in Foxborough, MA Showcase Live
06/03/10 Richie Kotzen in San Jose Latino Rock
06/04/10 Richie Kotzen in San Jose Latino Rock
06/05/10 Richie Kotzen in Jaco Beach Bar Tabacon
06/17/10 Richie Kotzen in London Academy Islington
06/19/10 Richie Kotzen in Manchester Club Academy
06/20/10 Richie Kotzen in Glasgow, Scotland The Classic Grand