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Spontaneous Combustion: An Exclusive Interview With RICHIE KOTZEN

By Shelly Harris, Chicago Contributor
Monday, March 29, 2021 @ 11:26 AM

" I always tell people, even though it's coming out now, this is not a Covid record. We were actually in the studio together, finishing it up, and then, a month later, is when all this chaos happened."

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Photo Credit: John McMurtrie

The song "Glory Road" on the new SMITH/KOTZEN album alludes to the fact that all that glitters isn't gold on that highway to rock 'n' roll fame and fortune, and the two collaborators on this project have come to know that truism extraordinarily well via first-hand experience of the highest caliber.

Obviously, guitarist/composer Adrian Smith is best known for his many years as one of the guitarists of IRON MAIDEN, but he has always sprinkled in outside projects - often taking on the lead vocals himself (though the strength of his bluesy vocals on this album might be the record's biggest surprise of all), commencing with the first recording band he fronted in London, URCHIN (in which he was so creatively invested that he turned down his first opportunity to join MAIDEN), and later with ASAP, PSYCHO MOTEL, and THE UNTOUCHABLES, and work with Bruce Dickinson's solo efforts as well.

At the same time, Richie Kotzen the versatile guitarist, vocalist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist has similar credentials with his years with current band, THE WINERY DOGS, solo projects, and past stints in MR. BIG, POISON, and others.

Nevertheless, the two continue to head on up the only glory road they have known with the new collaboration, released March 26, which shows them meeting new challenges and milestones with a blistering, confident record full of nine multi-faceted songs that is certainly one of the biggest surprises of all this year, despite the fact that Richie Kotzen clarifies that it is "not a Covid album." On the line from his home-base in L.A., he explains that statement and the nuts and bolts of the entire project:

KNAC.COM: The new album is a scorching, shredding surprise with great vocals, lyrics, and hooks that beg to be played out live. I had read that you and Adrian had initially mentioned you'd like to do something of a tour if you could work it out.

KOTZEN: We had planned on doing tour dates - or trying to schedule them - in April, but, obviously, all Hell broke loose, and here we are. Eventually, the release date stayed the same, and we were happy about that. Down the road it would still be great if we could do some live shows.

KNAC.COM: The story was that you and Adrian eventually met when Adrian got a place out in the LA area a few years ago, then you got together and casually started to jam before it evolved into a more serious collaboration like this.

KOTZEN: I don't remember the exact year it was, but it was quite awhile ago, and - let me see if I can get this straight - a buddy of mine and I were out one night in LA - looking for something to do. And there was this spot that I used to go to a lot in the 90s and into the 2000s, and it was a place where a lot of musicians would go. So, I would be in there once a week or twice a week, and hang out, and always would run into people. The scene kind of dropped off a bit deeper into the 2000s, but I was out one night and my friend and I decided to pop in this place, and there was a woman in there that my friend started talking to, and we ended up having a few drinks, and my friend says, "Oh, Richie plays music ..." And she says, "Oh, my husband, Adrian, is in a band." And he says, "What band?" And she says, "IRON MAIDEN." And I was like, "Oh my God! - because that was my favorite band from when I was a kid! At that point, I was like, Oh, I have to meet him!

From there he came into town, and it was some kind of get-together, and that is when I met Adrian, and we hit it off. What happened is, whenever they were in town around the holidays, they'd have a get-together at their house, and my wife and I, we'd get invited, and we'd go over there and hang out in his music room. So we'd go in there and jam cover songs and sing, and play, and I'd jump in on the bass, on the drums, or the guitar .. And one of those times, more recently, somebody suggested that we try to write something together, because, by then, we'd gotten pretty familiar with each other ... So, that's how it really started. Then we got together and threw some ideas around, and here we are now, we have a record.

KNAC.COM: You were doing basically some pre-production before you went to the island in February or 2020?

KOTZEN: Yeah, Turks and Caicos. That was basically where we recorded the album, and how that worked is, I was in Miami working; I did a show with my solo band there, then we got on the Monsters of Rock cruise, and did something there, Then, when I got back, I was with my wife, Julia, and then we flew down to the island to meet Adrian and Nathalie down in Turks. And, you know, the first couple of days when I was there, the last thing I wanted to do was work on music. It was so beautiful there, and we were hanging out on the beach, and that sort of thing ... But eventually we got down to it, and got into a nice rhythm. We would get up early - Adrian would go do some fishing and I'd go for a swim - and then we'd meet up, eat something, then go into the studio. We didn't do those marathon sessions like I used to do. We'd go in there for five or six hours - seven hours at the most - get some things going, then have dinner, and start it over again the next day. So, it was just really kind of calm, relaxed ... I say it's the easiest record I ever made. It really is.

KNAC.COM: That's very insightful into how everything germinated, and the process of how it came about. Not to deconstruct it all too much, but I tried to listen to see if I could identify who did what on each song - your contributions versus Adrian's contributions, whether lyrically or vocally. The instrumental parts were a little easier to discern. Your voices actually meld together really well. It requires close listening to figure out who is singing the leads at different points. How did that work, with decisions with who would sing or do what leads, etc.?

KOTZEN: Well, basically, there was an element at play - but not for every song - but, in general, if you write it, you sing it. And so, for example, during the song, "Taking My Chances", when Adrian came in with that riff, and so, when the verse came, he had an idea for that verse, so he sang that part, and then the pre-chorus and the chorus came, and I kind of had an idea for that part, so I sang it. "Scars" is very much like that, you know? He sang the beginning and I sang the chorus .. So, there is a bit of that, but, at the same time, not every song was like that. "Glory Road" I remember specifically, that Adrian had that concept for that chorus, and the lyrics we actually worked on together. In general it was kind of, if you have an idea for a melody, go ahead and sing it. But, you know, it's really difficult to dissect all that stuff, because it was such a really true collaboration that would not have existed had we not been in the room together. That's the other thing, too: I always tell people, even though it's coming out now, this is not a Covid record. We were actually in the studio together, finishing it up, and then, a month later, is when all this chaos happened. So, it gets a bit murky trying to pull apart who did what.

KNAC.COM: And, superficially, it might seem like an unlikely collaboration, because you share some of the same skill sets, but it really does appear that you both pushed each other in a positive way that actually made it a complimentary creation. It's cohesive, and at the same time, it's very diverse genre-wise. I'd like to ask about one song you already mentioned, "Scars" - my current favorite. The lyrics for that are excellent, and it is a slow burner that's also explosive.

KOTZEN: Yeah, I think it's the second one, after "Running", that we actually considered, that, OK, we're really onto something really cool happening here that I don't think either one of us could have predicted. We were both pleasantly surprised about how that clicked. "Scars" is one song that consistently comes up in interviews like this. I think they did a great job with the video; it brings to life the whole story.

KNAC.COM: Well, the videos are another thing that is unusual, since they really were done during Covid, and you and Adrian separated by thousands of miles and time zones during that time, with the scenes of you in LA and Adrian in the UK. Yet, you're put together to perform in the vids in a cohesive way in pandemic times.

KOTZEN: Yeah, they did a good job with making it look like we could be together, but we're not. Some of the obstacles were tricky in this current situation, for sure.

KNAC.COM: And you guys probably haven't seen each other at all for a whole year, have you? I talked to Adrian about his fishing bio later last year and they [UK] were getting ready to go into another strict lockdown again, so I figured he hasn't been back over here.

KOTZEN: Yeah, we haven't seen each other since March of last year. But, I'm going to see him again this month. He's now all cleared to come to California, and we're going to get together again, and that will be great. But, it is crazy to think a whole year has gone by!

KNAC.COM: The lyrics on the songs are pretty thought-provoking. Some are personal and philosophical, it seems. Where did they come from?

KOTZEN: The thing that is weird to me, because of the type of music I do, whether it's with Adrian, or solo, or with my group THE WINERY DOGS, I've always said it was the lyrics that were key. In other words, you have a melody, and then you need a lyric; without the melody and the lyric, you don't have a song in this style of music. A lot of people get caught up with, "Two guitar players - how do you decide who plays what, and what kind of guitar?" - and this and that. And the reality is that we - Adrian and I - our focus is on the song. That's the first thing we're worried about. It's "Richie, I have a riff, what are you going to sing?" And it's like, "I've got a melody here, what do you want to sing about?" A great example I can give you about how this works, is there is a song called "Solar Fire", and I had done improvisational vocals on that song. I basically just got in front of the mic and started scatting some melodies, not using any real words, just phonetics, I guess you'd call it. It was just something to have an idea of where I was going. And I played it for Adrian, and he was like, "Wow! It sounds like you're saying 'solar fire'"! And I was like, Wow, what does that mean?! So, then we sit there and talk about this idea of solar fire. Are you burning, are you playing, are you playing with solar fire? So we throw ideas back and forth, and that's how we write the lyrics. Now, other things come in ways you don't know, like "Scars" - when that part comes where I start to sing that higher melody, I improvised that. The first time around, I heard what Adrian sang, and I literally free-styled that vocal, and then that led me to the chorus, the open arms part. Somehow, that just came to me. To answer your question, with something like that, I have no idea where the words are coming from. (laughs) I just kind of comes out of you. I don't rap, but when those guys get on the mic, and they do their rap, and it just comes out - sometimes for me, lyrics happen that way. And I'll stop and say, OK, that worked but this didn't work. Let me fix this, let me fix that. So, that's basically a good explanation of how we approached the lyrics.

KNAC.COM: And, not to go into it too much, as you've already mentioned, but there was a different kind of collaboration going on with the guitar parts. Sometimes I heard harmonizing, and sometimes I heard traded off leads, licks, or riffs. I'm not a guitar player, mind you! (laughs) Was that spontaneous, too?

KOTZEN: That might have been a little more thought in that, but it was also very casual. Like, I can remember a solo section would come up, where I might say, "Wait a minute - I've got an idea. Do you mind if I try something here?" And I'd go in and do something, and I'd say, I've got it this far, why don't you take it the rest of the way?" A good is example, in the song "Running", there's a part that comes in there after the second chorus, that Adrian said, "Hey, I've got an idea. Do you have a delay peddle?" I put the delay peddle on and he does this really cool arpeggio thing, and, when that ends, I break into a solo on my own. And then, after that, the third chorus, I said, "I've done the middle solo, why don't you do the ride out?" So, that whole ending is Adrian. So, we kind of have this free and loose vibe. I think both of us are confident enough as players to not really worry about one guy getting more attention than the other. That never really came into the equation. That's probably why it works. It think really, when you get down to it, there's a level of confidence that we both have as individual musicians, and then there's an element of trust that we have together, where we have open communication.

KNAC.COM: Ah, that's a great explanation of the chemistry you have as collaborators and as partners on this record. But, finally, I want to circle back to the status of ever getting to play some of these great songs out live, as far as you know?

KOTZEN: Well, we're talking about getting together with a couple of guys and just seeing if we can play a couple of songs, just to see how it feels, and get an idea of what works and doesn't work. And, then once we know that it's possible to get out there - when we see things are opening up and that guys are actually booking shows - then we'll talk to the booking agent and see what they have available for us, where we can play and what makes sense, and get that going. We are looking towards getting out, while being aware of the parameters of what you can do and what you can't do. But, that is our goal, to get out there and play live.

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