Richie Kotzen Combines Old and New on "Cannibals"

“On this record I really embraced the fact that I could do whatever the hell I wanted to do artistically,” says Richie Kotzen about his latest, Cannibals [Headroom-Inc].

“On this record I really embraced the fact that I could do whatever the hell I wanted to do artistically,” says Richie Kotzen about his latest, Cannibals [Headroom-Inc]. “In the past, I always had that looming pressure of people at labels saying, ‘Everyone knows you as a guitar player. Make sure you have a lot of guitar on there and be sure to do a lot of solos.’ Well, I can’t really write music and worry about what the guitar is doing.”

Fans of Kotzen’s amazing 6-string talents needn’t fear, however, because Cannibals has tons of great riffs and interesting solos. It’s just that Kotzen’s vocal melodies and lyrics are the focal points in tunes that span high-energy rock, old-school R&B, and introspective ballads. He covers stylistic ground that you wouldn’t necessarily expect on a Winery Dogs record, but his voice and guitar are so distinctive that you know it’s him right away. He’s clearly at a point in his career where he’s comfortable sounding like himself.

“I might use some of the same chord progressions I’ve used before,” he says, “but I think that is partially what defines someone’s writing style. It’s what helps you recognize, say, a Hall & Oates tune or a Bob Seger tune. Those artists both use different chord changes than each other, but they both tend to reuse some of their chord progressions. You don’t even notice, though, because the songs are so powerful. Hopefully that’s what I’m doing.”

Although Kotzen writes music almost constantly, he didn’t mind digging into the vault for some of the material on Cannibals. “There are some things on this record that I’ve had for a long time that I never really knew how to include on any of my previous records, but for some reason they seemed to fit on Cannibals. Somehow I thought now is the time to release them.”

Some things on Cannibals are a bit of a departure for you.

I think the record is very consistent with where I left off on the previous one, 24 Hours, but there are things on this record that people haven’t heard me do before. One of the highlights for me is the song “You,” which was written by my daughter and myself. It was written in kind of a weird way. I remember many years ago, she must have been 14 or maybe even younger, she would always sit at the piano and play the three sections that are in that song. One day I asked her, “What is that?” And she told me, “It’s something that I made up.” I said, “That’s really good. I want to make sure you don’t forget that. Let’s record it.” She played for about seven minutes and did all three sections. She never finished it and kind of forgot about it. When I was looking through my files of older compositions, I found it and decided to finish it. We made a video for it that I released at the end of last year just because I was so excited that I had a song that my daughter wrote.

The tune “Come On Free” has a really powerful and to-the-point guitar solo.

Obviously that’s an older solo. You can hear that I’m using a guitar pick, which nowadays I’ve abandoned for the most part. One of the things that makes it sound so deliberate is that when it comes in, it’s loud in the mix and it’s really the only instrument on the entire track that has that kind of tonality. It just comes out of left field, but in my opinion, it fits perfectly. Also there’s a flanger on it, which is something that you don’t often hear me use. I think those are the reasons why it sounds so deliberate.

How did you play the fast, intricate nylon-string runs in “Time for the Payment”?

With a pick. That’s another song that was recorded during the Richie Kotzen guitar-pick era, before I really started committing to fingerstyle playing. I believe I played that on a Yamaha nylon-string. I definitely don’t claim to be a nylon-string player, but I wanted that tonality. That’s what I heard in my head and it worked for me, so I allowed that to live there. That song could have gone in a million directions, but that’s what I ended up doing.

Is there anything you miss about playing with a pick?

The beauty of it is, anytime I want, I can grab a guitar pick and still play. I didn’t forget how to play with a pick. As a matter of fact, when I do play with a pick, I actually pick better than I ever did. I don’t know why, but I do. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I love the fact that when I pack to go on tour, I don’t have to think about guitar picks. It’s one less thing for me to take. I love that more than anything. The other thing I love is that when I play with my fingers, I feel more connected to the instrument. And now I have a whole new vocabulary of lines and phrases that I can use in my music that I couldn’t do before because they can only be done with fingers. On the last record I did with the Winery Dogs, there are solos that are straight fingerstyle and stuff where I use a pick. But if you see me live, I won’t be using a guitar pick because I don’t want to take them with me.

Talk about your signature Tech 21 pedal.

The whole thing stems from something I did that I showed the guys at Tech 21. I was doing a lot of dates that I would call fly gigs. I’d fly in and I’d be on some crazy amp that wasn’t necessarily my first choice. I’d also be with a local crew, so setting up or tearing down could be a bit of an issue. I wanted something that was easy to travel with and easy to set up. I took a two-stage overdrive, a Tech 21 delay pedal, and the switching mechanism from my Fender Twin, which was the amp I was using at the time. I took all of those components and put them in one crude-looking metal chassis. I showed that to Andrew [Barta] from Tech 21. He found a way to make it way more professional, and that became the Fly Rig. We spent about six months working on the overdrive until it was right for me, and that’s my signature RK5 Fly Rig. It’s just such a practical idea. That’s what I’m using, plus this great little wah called the Fire Wah from Brazil and a Line 6 digital wireless that I really love.

Do you typically get your distortion from the amp or from the pedal?

It depends on the amp. My go-to amp is a Marshall 100-watt plexi, and when I use that amp, most of my distortion comes from the pedal because the amp is so loud. To get the amp distortion, I would need to be in a much bigger room than I often find myself in. And even if I was in a bigger room, with the amp behind me I have to be careful with the volume because I’m singing. It’s trying to find a balance where I can hear myself sing but still get that kind of tone that guitar players like to get. With the 100-watt plexi, the first stage of the RK5’s overdrive is always on, and then I can get the full lead tone by turning up my guitar’s volume all the way. If I ever feel like I’m getting into trouble and I need just a little more distortion, I can hit the boost. That’s how I use the RK5 in that particular setup or through a Fender Twin. I also love this little 18-watt hand-wired Marshall combo, the 1974X. With that, I turn the amp up all the way and it just has a great natural distortion. Then I use the RK5 as more of a boost. That’s what’s cool about this pedal: you have options.

From the outside looking in, it seems like you stay really busy. How do you manage all the various recording projects and tours that you do?

That’s a good question. 2011 was when I released my last solo record, 24 Hours, and I toured a lot on that record—more than a year all over the world if you add everything up. After that, my plan was to take a break and not do anything. And then suddenly the Winery Dogs formed, so I wrote the Winery Dogs record and released it. We toured for a long time and I was exhausted. Then my label suggested that I put out a compilation record. I was picking songs that were already recorded so it wasn’t that much work. I had two new songs that would have been on a solo record, so I threw them on there. Then I put out Cannibals. I know it seems like I’m a work machine, but in order to do all this, I need balance. I just came off the road. I’m home, and I’m literally just not doing anything on purpose for two months. It’s crucial to get away from music and do something else, because otherwise you can start hating what you’re doing. It wasn’t like that when I was a kid and I would write and record 24 hours a day. As you get older and more experienced, that can change. I’m still excited about music, but I know if I don’t get away from it when I feel like I need to, I’ll start to hate it, and I don’t ever want to be mad at music.