RICHIE KOTZEN HAS JOINED FORCES WITH BASS GOD BILLY SHEEHAN and drum monster Mike Portnoy, and writers everywhere have slapped the dreaded “S” word on them. Saddling any band with the label “supergroup” has pretty much been a guaranteed kiss of death since the term was coined back in the ’60s. But while many of those bands collapsed under the collective weight of the members’ egos, plenty of them died because their tunes just plain sucked. And that’s precisely what makes Kotzen’s new band the Winery Dogs so cool: the songs. The clever riffs and strong melodies—courtesy of Kotzen’s soulful lead vocals—are already getting these songs to a far greater audience than the typical super-chops shredfest.
“People really have responded well,” says Kotzen. “The album came in at number 27 on the top 200 of Billboard and we all looked at each other and said, ‘Really?’ None of our other projects did that.”
For all the talk of songwriting, fans of the mammoth technical skills of these players have no reason to fear, because the chops on this record are amazing, with intricate fills, breakneck solos, and kick-ass breakdowns in just about every tune. Instead of proggy, uber-complex compositions, however, the Dogs use classic-rock-influenced progressions as the backdrop for their instrumental prowess, and the resulting sound comes off not like a project, but a band.
How did this band come together?
It was actually perfect timing, because I was on a break after my last CD, 24 Hours. I would have gone in and made another solo record. Mike Portnoy and Billy Sheehan wanted to form a new band, they wanted it to be a power trio, and they needed a guitar player that could sing and write. Eddie Trunk suggested me and I got a phone call from Mike shortly after that and we had a conversation. Then, about a month later, we got together at my house, set up, and recorded some ideas that later became a big chunk of what ended up on the record.
Describe the songwriting process.
There were basically two formulas to how the record was written. Seven or eight of the songs were literally written out of us going in the room and jamming, and those jams could start in any way. Billy would start playing a bass line or I’d play a riff on the guitar and that would turn into something. Then we would just throw down these little templates: verse, chorus, solo section, etc. And then they went off on the road with another project, and I wrote riffs and melodies and finished the songs. There was one song that Mike actually took it upon himself to write words for, which was interesting. I’ve covered songs before, but I’ve never really made a record where I sang someone else’s lyrics. It was kind of a challenge, but in the end I think it came out pretty cool.
How else did you guys collaborate on the tunes?
The most interesting story is how the song “Elevate” came to be. The opening riff, the verse, and the bridge were all part of one song that I had demoed. However, the chorus that you hear was originally the chorus of “I’m No Angel.” I never really liked it in “I’m No Angel,” though, and that’s why I wrote a new chorus. The guys liked most of “Elevate,” but they didn’t respond to the chorus. The next day Mike came in and said, “What about using that chorus that you used to have in the other song?” At first I was pretty resistant but then we re-harmonized some of the voicings on the guitar and bass and it ended up sounding really cool and it became the opening track and the first single. So, the point of the story is collaboration puts you in a situation where you end up doing things you wouldn’t normally do. I had those pieces already written, but I would have never thought to put them together. Had Mike not said anything, that song would have never seen the light of day.
Talk about the fills that you guys all connect on so well. Some seem planned out but some seem totally off the cuff.
Winery Dogs (from left)—Billy Sheehan, Mike Portnoy, and Richie Kotzen.
Some of the fills are orchestrated—written into the song—like the stuff in “We Are One” and all those lines in “I’m No Angel.” However, there are songs where lines were totally off the cuff. The perfect example is in “Elevate.” Billy and Mike went on a tear, they just went for it. I went back and listened to what they did and I thought that rather than play everything the same, I would mix it up a bit. So if you notice the interplay between the guitar and the bass and drums, it’s kind of staggered, but then I do catch some lines. That was just an improv. And the same with “Not Hopeless.” There’s a huge section where Billy does a bass solo, and then halfway I come in and double him. None of that was orchestrated, I just went off. I thought it was such just a cool line and I knew how he was doing it, because I saw him do it, and he was tapping. I tap, but I don’t tap that way, so I figured out a way to do it where I use open strings and finger pick. So that is a line that came out of just jamming. Even the stuff that’s written out I think has been played so well that it sounds off the cuff, which is the way you want it to be.
How did you create the guitar tones for this record?
A lot of the record is a Fender Vibro-King and a Vibrolux connected together. I had an SM57 on each amp and then I also had a room mike, a Neumann U87. Then I would double it. So there’s six tracks there—two guitar performances with three mics each, and I blended those in a certain way. That was standard operating procedure for the record and I would occasionally double some of the bigger songs with the heavy choruses with my 100-watt plexi Marshall. You almost can’t hear it but if you muted it you’d say, “Wait, what happened?” On the chorus for “The Dying,” I’m using a Fender Bassman with the Vibro-King. I really wanted that sound on that particular song. Laney sent me a head to try out around the time the record was almost finished, and I used it on three or four solos, including “Not Hopeless.” I really like that amp.
The intro to “I’m No Angel” is really cool. Can you describe how you’re playing that?
That riff is a little tricky because of the intonation. I’m holding a B on the fifth string, and then I’m bending the B string. Then I go down a whole step on the fifth string to an open A, and I’m bending on the third string. It’s a tricky line because I’m holding this low note on the fifth string but I’m also bending and playing a melody on the top. You don’t want to bend the high note and accidentally move the low note because that would sound ridiculous. And there have been nights onstage where I wasn’t in my right mind and I played the lick and thought, “Oh no… it’s not in tune!” But when it’s played correctly, it’s pretty sexy.
What’s the noise that starts your solo in “Six Feet Deeper”?
I’m hitting harmonics on the 4th fret of the D and G strings and then I reach behind the nut and I push the G string up. I’m bending the G string while the D string is still ringing so it makes that screaming sound.
If you had to pick five records that made a huge impression on you when you were learning guitar, what would they be?
I’m going to pick records that I just remember off the top of my head playing a lot when I was a kid. The Number of the Beast from Iron Maiden, even though I don’t play anything like those guys, I played the hell out of that record and I loved the guitar solos. The Scorpions’ Blackout, with “No One Like You.” I played that record a million times. And then my mother had the George Benson record, Breezin’. I know it’s not necessarily a guitar record, but Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book—I played the daylights out of that. And a lot of Eddie Van Halen.
Your first Shrapnel record was produced by Jason Becker. What was that experience like?
We were like two little lunatics in the studio. Mike Varney told me, “Alright, we’re going to make a record. I’m going to put you with Jason because I can’t be there every day to watch you, and he knows the procedure.” I thought it was going to be a nightmare, because Jason was just so great. He was doing things on the guitar that blew my mind. I had my little bag of tricks— some licks and some legato things that I could do—but I didn’t really have my identity sorted out. He really seemed like he had already found his voice and his knowledge of music seemed deeper than mine, so I was very intimidated. But I immediately realized that I could learn something from this dude and we became friends right away. I learned a lot working with him.
When you were putting the Winery Dogs together, were you guys at all concerned that the world might not want or need another super-chops supergroup?
Well, no [laughs]. My driving force is to write and be creative, and I use music as a vehicle to do that. I know that people throw around the word supergroup because of the pedigree of the guys involved, but all that comes from the outside. I don’t think Mike and Billy look at themselves that way, and I certainly don’t. I’m just a guy that likes to sing and write songs and play the guitar.