It’s a beautiful Thursday morning in Melbourne and I’m sat in my car at 10am, about to call the legendary Richie Kotzen. Once he answers the phone we chat a bit about what he’s been doing before the call. He received my call from Malibu and tells me bemusedly that he was enjoying some drinks at a bar during happy hour and had to go and sit in his car to hear me properly. We share a laugh and move onto chatting about his latest solo album: Salting Earth

I ask him to tell us a bit more about the record and Richie explains, “Well we’ve been touring on it for about 5 weeks now and one of the things that’s noteworthy is that we’re doing a lot of material from the new record.” He goes on to say, “typically in the past when I make a record I do one or two, maybe three, new songs. But this time we’ve got about six or seven in the set and it’s been going over really well. I’m really happy with the response I’ve been getting”

I agree with Richie that that must be fantastic and ask if we can expect the same amount of new songs when he brings the tour to our Australian cities of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. He tells me they’ll be doing “The same show” so it’s good news for anybody who’s a big fan of this latest release, Richie continues however,

“The other thing that’s kind of interesting is I’m doing a lot more electric piano, so I’m kind of bouncing back and forth between guitar and piano which is really good for me coz then when I jump back on the guitar I have a whole new perspective. So that’s been kind of fun and we also have an acoustic section in the set where we kind of break things down and make things a little more intimate.”

Staying on the topic of piano, I ask the legendary multi-musician to go into more detail about how it was his first instrument and where it went from there and he tells me,

“I started taking piano lessons when I was very young and for whatever reason that didn’t really stick with me and I ended up jumping over to guitar and that…you know…. kind of consumed me. But you know I still have flirted with the piano throughout my career and I love writing on the piano and using it in the studio. I don’t really have a long history of playing live on the piano, but with this new record and this tour, I’ve been really exploring that more and it’s been going really well.”

The conversation flows back onto the current tour and how this will be Richie’s very first time playing in Australia, and indeed, his first time down under in general. I prompt him to tell me how it makes him feel to finally be making his way here,

“I’ve never been and I’m really looking forward to it, it’s a place I always wanted to play. I’ve had offers to play in the past and unfortunately the timing wasn’t in a way that I could pull it off. But this time everything lined up. I always get asked by people ‘Oh why don’t you play here?’ and it’s really not up to believe it or not, I have to kind of follow the lead of where the offers come from and where the agent sends me. But finally, thankfully, the stars lined up so we’re really looking forward to coming down there.”

We begin discussing the give and take relationship between an artist and their audience, a topic which is very important to Richie. He shares his insight into it as well as what he hopes to give and also receive from his upcoming Australian shows,

“Ultimately, I’m there to play the music, the great thing for me is that I’m able to go all around the world and play these songs. I asked a lot about audiences in different areas, but the reality is that there’s a consistency around the world. It just seems like music, transcends everything. I think that a lot as I’m playing to people that are interested in what I’m doing it’s gonna be a lot of fun. It’s great to play in front of people who know the music and are familiar with what you’re doing, and getting that reaction. But sometimes you play for people who have never heard you before and hopefully they leave with a good feeling. We’re just gonna come there, do what we do and hopefully it translates well.”

Continuing to chat about the tour, I ask if we can expect the same backing band when Richie arrives in Oz, to which he responds happily, “Absolutely! We’ve been playing together for almost seven years now, and that’s very important. These guys I play with, Mike Bennet is the drummer and Dylan Wilson is the bass player, they know me very well and they know the music very well. They actually add something to the music when we play live, just because we’re so comfortable and have been doing this a long time.”

I prompt him to tell us a little more about this particular line-up, to which he enthusiastically continues,

“I think now actually we’re playing better than we’ve ever played. We feel more connected and more in sync. There’s a lot of moments in the show where we improvise, ad lib things and change songs and shift direction. I wouldn’t be able to do that with people I wasn’t comfortable with. So, I’m very happy and thankful to be playing with these guys. It’s gotten more interesting and more inspired. We were fortunate on the last tour to be able to record a live show. We did a DVD in Japan. That really captured some great moments and hopefully we’ll get to do that again at the end of this tour. Somewhere. I don’t know what territory yet. But you know, when you play together that long you really get to know each other and I think the music benefits the most from it.”

Since he brought up the topic I ask Richie if he would ever like to shoot a live DVD down in Australia and I’m sure all fans of his will be thrilled by what he said by way of response, “Yeah! That’s certainly an option and for some reason I thought I saw an email flying around somewhere about that possibly happening!” He continues by explaining how it’s always uncertain whilst filming because there are a lot of variables that can cause things to go wrong. Despite these variables Richie hasn’t yet gone the route of filming multiple nights. I asked if that was the case with his band The Winery Dogs when they released their live DVD to which he shared some surprising info, “No still the one night, and the crazy thing about that, that was the second show we had ever done so it was pretty risky… Pretty ballsy.”

Changing topic slightly, I decided it was time to discuss the specifics of why Richie has always liked to write and record his solo completely by himself, and why it works so well for him,

“Well I’ve been doing it for a long time. I grew up fairly isolated, I didn’t have a lot of options for recording or working with people in the beginning of my career. So, I got really comfortable with documenting my ideas on my own and trying to figure how to get the sounds I hear in my head onto some kind of format to listen to. It just and evolved and became really comfortable for me. One of the key components is, when I’m in the studio I have everything [microphoned] up at all times. Everything remains ready to go, so at any point I go back and fix something or add something.”

At this point Richie and I vehemently agree that this is a system that works for him and provides him more freedom and efficiency. After discussing his recording methods, the conversation subsequently flows onto his composition process itself, he seems at a very content place and tells me, “I like to work when I’m inspired, I don’t like to force things and thankfully, it seems as though I’m able to work in a way where I don’t have to force things or meet deadlines.”

Here we finally reach the moment in the conversation where the two of us guitar nerds have moment to discuss our love…guitars. Richie goes into detail about why he made the switch around a decade ago to a fingerstyle technique when playing,

“I still use a pick from time to time, especially when recording. But I was going through a phase on a particular tour where I didn’t like how I was sounding, and I wanted to try something new. Although I had played certain songs fingerstyle in the past, I’d never done an entire show. By doing that it forced me into a different approach on the instrument. It actually worked out for me because I have a whole new vocabulary now that I developed. It was something I did because I was feeling a little bit stagnant, a little uninspired and I wanted to shake things up a bit.”

“I think there’s an honesty in what I do” he says to me a little bit later on, “If I’m doing it, it’s for a reason. It’s because of a reaction, nothing is pre-planned with me.” Upon hearing this I ask what the band dynamic is in The Winery Dogs, seeing as with drummer Mike Portnoy everything is pre-planned, and there is the excitable personality of Billy Sheehan in the mix as well.

“It’s very different. It’s more of a collaboration, so we all adjust a little bit to play with each other. But that’s why The Winery Dogs has a unique sound. The band has a very interesting sound. It’s really a result of how we interact together.”

Beginning to wrap up the conversation I ask further about the new record and implore Richie to explain the story behind the title: Salting Earth

“It came out a lyric, there’s a song on the record called End of Earth, I say something to the effect of ‘I’m salting a bit of earth’ and really it just relates to leaving something behind. When I was naming the record, I didn’t have a title and I was reading the lyrics and that struck me as kind of interesting in the sense of leaving something behind. If I was to stop making music I certainly left plenty of things behind. In dealing with life in general you meet people and someone might say something that leaves an impression on you. So that’s where the sentiment came from.”

I reach my penultimate question and ask Richie when it was that he realized music could be his career. His response is a killer story,

“I got so deep in music when I was a kid that I didn’t understand what a career was. As a little kid, I was always playing and trying to write songs and trying to entertain my family. Then eventually I got in a cover band, back where I grew up, and then we started getting bookings! so by the time I was fifteen, I was playing four nights a week and actually earning money playing music! So, I kind of went straight into it. I was very lucky that way. I’ve only ever done music so I’d be in big trouble if I suddenly had to switch jobs”

After absorbing the fantastic origin story of Mr. Kotzen, I ask him to leave us with the most important piece of advice he could give to any serious aspiring musicians,

“I would have to say playing with other people and playing in front of people. It’s kinda two-fold! So, it’s playing live and ultimately playing with other musicians. I think that’s a valuable thing. Many musicians get stuck in the practice mode, and never actually get on stage. Don’t be afraid of that. Get out there! Get in front of people, play live and make music with other people!”

Get your copy of “Salting Earth” today!
https://www.discogs.com/Richie-Kotzen-Salting-Earth/release/10156488

“SALTING EARTH” AUSTRALIAN TOUR

Tickets: https://www.oztix.com.au/

August 24th, Max Watt’s, Brisbane
August 25th, Factory Theatre, Sydney
August 26th, Max Watt’s, Melbourne