Smith/Kotzen, the collaboration between guitar giants Adrian Smith and Richie Kotzen, has been teased with cryptic posts on social media in the last few months. More recently, three singles have been revealed: “Taking My Changes”, “Scars” and “Running”, which carry both players’ early influences on their sleeves.
On March 26th fans will be able to experience the duo’s electrifying collaboration in full, which embodies the spirited attitude of 1970’s classic rock with a modern edge. The record features special guest performances by Adrian‘s IRON MAIDEN bandmate Nicko McBrain on drums for the track “Solar Fire”, and Richie‘s longstanding friend and touring partner Tal Bergman on drums for “You Don’t Know Me”, “I Wanna Stay” and “‘Til Tomorrow”, with Richie picking up the sticks on the other five songs.
Sonic Perspectives collaborator Rodrigo Altaf sat down with Richie Kotzen to discuss several songs off this album, how his friendship with Adrian developed and much more. Listen to their conversation or enjoy the chat transcript below, and remember that for more interviews and other daily content, Sonic Perspectives is on Facebook, Flipboard, Twitter and YouTube, where you can be notified about new content we publish on a daily basis.
Richie, how you doing, man?
I’m doing great. How are you?
I’m good, man! I know you speak a little bit of Portuguese, so maybe I should say bom dia!
Bom dia! [laughs]. You know, I’m going to get embarrassed here, because I only know the bad words in Portuguese: “sai daqui”, “gambiarra” [laughs]. I just know some strange words, but you know, I get in trouble a lot because, um, I’m just too lazy and I really should know a lot of Portuguese being that I’m married to a Brazilian. So this is something that I promise I am going to focus on for the future.
Good stuff! But let’s talk about the upcoming release of Smith/Kotzen. I think it’s a unique pairing, which yielded an amazing album. How did you guys meet at first?
Well, it was very interesting how we’ve met. It was many years ago and I was out one night with a buddy friend of mine and we were driving around looking for something to do. And there is a place in LA called the Sunset Marquis and it’s a tiny little bar in a hotel on a side street. And I used to go in there all the time in the nineties. That was a real popular place for musicians to hang out and one night, and this is not, this wasn’t the nineties. This was, you know, 2000’s and it kind of had died off. But one night I went in there just hanging out and we started talking to this woman who was in interested in music and my friend said “Oh, you know, Richie’s is a guitar player and this and that”. And then she said “Oh, well, my husband is in Iron Maiden”. And you know, I have been a fan of Iron Maiden since I’ve been a child. I mean, it’s one of my favorite bands of all time. I played “The Number of the Beast” every morning before I went to school when it came out. So, you know, Maiden and Black Sabbath were my bands back in that particular era of my life. We hit it off and she said, “Adrian’s coming to town, and I’ll make sure you guys can meet”. Adrian and I eventually met, and we developed into a friendship and my wife and Adrian‘s wife are friends. So we all became friends and every time they would come to LA, we’d get together, go for dinner. And they would have holiday parties at the house. And there would always be like a jam session happening by the end of the night, somewhere along the line, we’d go into the studio and start messing around playing cover songs. And in more recent times, Natalie, his wife, had mentioned “you know, you guys should try and write a song together, see what happens!”. So we got together and then one thing led to another and now we’ve got this out.
Awesome! And I don’t think many people know this, but your first ever concert was Iron Maiden in 1985! If you only knew it would be playing with Adrian many years later, right?
Oh yeah. Can you believe that? And yeah, it was the “Piece of Mind” tour. I saw them in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which is not far from where I grew up. And that was the loudest concert I’ve ever been to, by the way to this day!
That says something! And you recorded the album in Turks & Caicos. What was it like to record there in terms of recording facilities, infrastructure and whatnot?
You know, I had never been there before, and Adrian goes down there a lot, so they suggested we do something different and we went down there. They said everything was set up for us, so I didn’t have to worry about anything. I had just done a show in Miami and then I went on a cruise and did a performance. So I was already close by. So I got on the plane and Julia, my wife and I went down there. To be honest, the first couple days, I didn’t want to bother to do anything except lay on the beach and drink caipirinhas or whatever we were drinking down there [laughs]. And it was fantastic. But then we got into a routine and eventually we got to work and did what we had to do, so Adrian and I ended up producing the record, and did everything ourselves.
And then when it was all done, we sent the, the final files, whatever you call it, not tape. I used to record on tape back in the day, I had a tape machine in my house and I used to cut tape to edit. I would splice the 24 track machine and everything. I learned how to do all that stuff, but now you send files. So we sent the files to Australia, which is a lot cheaper to send than audio tape! And Kevin Shirley got hold of it and just did a fantastic job mixing it. I mean, when they sent back the first song, I said “Oh yeah, you got to have this guy mix the whole record!”. So that was nice. And so everything came together. I gotta say, now that I have it right here in my office – I’m looking at it, and I have it in vinyl – it reminds me of one of those classic albums that I would have had when I was a kid, you know? And that’s why I’m so proud of it. Obviously it’s got Adrian‘s name on the cover. So that’s a big deal for me – Adrian Smith and Richie Kotzen together. But the thing is that it looks and feels, and sounds like one of those records that I would have bought back in the day. So I’m very excited to get this out there so people can hear it.
Very cool! And it’s great how you guys split the bass and the vocals on all the tracks. And there’s almost a seamless transition between you two in the verses. How was the decision made for every track in terms of who’s going to sing what, who’s going to play bass where etc.?
Yeah, well, I played bass on my records. Um, you know, I hate saying this, but I consider myself a bass player as much as a guitar player because I have the privilege of growing up around great bass players. As you know, I’ve been in two bands with Billy Sheehan, Mr. Big and The Winery Dogs. And I was in a band with Stanley Clarke. And so, you know, those are two top-of-the-food-chain guys right there, and then a long list of other amazing guys, you know, Jeff Berlin, T.M. Stevens and all these guys. So I picked up a lot and bass is something that I always gravitated towards as a young person. I love Richie Kotzen:, and the bass on his album “Talking Book” is fantastic. So, it was really natural for me to grab the bass on a couple of songs, and Adrian played bass on a couple of things. So it just made sense. We had ideas, one of us would have an idea for a bass line and say “let me try this”. And then with the singing, it really was also a matter of who had an idea. For example, “Taking My Chances”, Adrian brought that riff in, and then he had an idea what to sing over it. You know, when that verse comes, and the song opens up to the verse. And then the next part, I said “well, let me try something, I got an idea”. You know what I mean? We really did that. It just kind of went naturally. So it’s almost like if somebody had an idea for a melody, then they’d sing it. Although it’s not like that on every song, there are a couple songs where it went the other way, where maybe Adrian had an idea for a melody and I sing it.
So almost an even split. And you did most of the drums on the album, but you also have Tal Bergman adding some flavor on three songs and Nicko from Iron Maiden on the song “Solar Fire”. Can you comment on that?
Sure! Um, you know, things started rolling in a way that we started realizing quickly that I was the drummer on the album. We wanted to get some different flavors, but as far as me and my drumming, I kinda come from a Simon Kirke/John Bonham school of drumming, you know, I love John Bonham. So I liked that style, but I don’t have that kind of machine gun, you know, big fills, you know, kind of big shooter type drum fills. I don’t have that in my arsenal. So when we did “Solar Fire” I said, “you know, I can play on this, but man, it’d be nice to get someone with a little more facilities to do this, to make it a little more aggressive, a little more entertaining”. And so Adrian had the idea to call Nicko, and he just did a great job! I mean, the fills he put on there just set it off to me. I think he did a great job. And then once we decided to do that for “Solar Fire”, I thought “well I just did a couple shows with Tal Bergman, who I’ve known since I was 26, who I also took with me when I opened for The Rolling Stones”. I picked him to go over there to Japan with me. And so he did a couple of songs and he’s one of those guys that comes in, he listens to what you got. We had everything mapped out, with either a drum loop or a click track guide, guitar guide, vocals…and he said, “all right, well, let me listen to it”. He’d sit there for about 20 minutes with a piece of paper and a pencil, not say nothing, just play it back and forth, write stuff and say “thanks, I got it, let’s go.” And he’d go down there and just bang! –done in one take, or “let me fix this one section”. So that was great, but you know, that was just how it happened, and they did a great job on it.
Absolutely! And tell me about Scars, the second single. In my head, I keep imagining that song being stretched live with you and Adrian exchanging solos on it like a long jam type of thing.
Yeah. That’d be great! You know, we’re going to have to stretch some stuff out because we only have nine songs! So we’re going to have to come up with something, but we are talking about playing live. We got half of this, right: the first half was getting the record released in March. And that was always the plan. This thing was finished before the pandemic hit. So in our minds, I had four continents of dates book for myself for the “50 for 50” album that I put out in February of 2020, and he had dates for Maiden. So we thought “all right, well, let’s release Smith/Kotzen in March of 2021, and then come April, we’ll go do some shows”. So half of that, we got right. We got the record coming out here in March. Unfortunately, we can’t do the live shows. But the plan eventually when things open up is for us to get out there and do some live shows.
Okay, fingers crossed! By the way, forgive my ignorance, but I always thought you played Telecasters exclusively, but on the video of Scars you’re playing a Strat. Is that right?
Oh yeah. You got to go back and look at my old videos. I’m about 50/50 between the Teles and Strats. On one of the last music videos I put out I was playing a Strat, but you know, I go back and forth. Back in the early 90’s, I was doing the Tele, then in ‘94, when I did the “Mother Head’s Family Reunion” record, I was playing Strats. And I kind of go back and forth on this record, I’m playing both. But at one point on this record – you can go back and listen to it – on the song “I Wanna Stay”, and I think in one other song, I actually grabbed Adrian‘s Jackson and I did a solo. And that thing took me back to my teenage years, because it has a locking tremolo system, which I abandoned years ago, because they’re such a pain in the ass to tune and deal with! [laughs]. But back then I used to play it. So I grabbed his guitar and I was playing that, using that bar. And I listened back to the solo and it sounds like an old, like a teenage Richie Kotzen came back and did a solo on the record [laughs]. Listen to it and you’ll hear me sound like back to my Shrapnel Records roots on that particular song, but it’s because I just grabbed his guitar to do the solo, just to try something different.
Awesome. Another song that has that slow burn kind of feel that you could easily jam to and stretch out is “You Don’t Know Me”, with seven minutes!
Yeah, that’s right. That’s the one that has the long solo at the end, right? I got to go back and listen, because you know the problem, I don’t know if it’s a problem, but I tend to make records and then I never listened to them again until I got to play it live and then I’ll go back and study it, figure out what I did. I figured once we got play live, we’ll stretch out some things cause we’re both players, we like to play. So we’ll stretch out some things, maybe pull in a song from Adrian’s catalogue, that’s not a Smith/Kotzen song, maybe pull out one of mine, probably throwing a couple of covers in there. We could put a good set together.
I can’t wait to see you live! I think this record has everything that the old seventies fan, is willing to happen in 2021. And Adrian mentioned that “I Wanna Stay” was the song that took the longest of all to reach its final form. Can you tell me what was difficult about that one in particular?
That song, there’s a melody there in the chorus, and there’s a couple of lines there, that were in my head the entire time I was down there in Turks & Caicos. It was kind of making me crazy, like literally, and I even say that in the song, “oh, she makes me crazy”. I actually put that in the lyric because the melody was making me crazy! I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say. And that happens, sometimes you have an idea for a song, you sing it into your recorder so you don’t forget it. At other times you don’t need to, because the melody just sticks with you. I knew it was something that needed to be written because it wasn’t going away, and then one night it clicked. I went in there, I got in front of the microphone and just started messing around and it came together. But he’s right. That one took probably the longest to get going.
And “Running”, the second song on the album, is particularly catchy. Am I right in saying that there’s a Lenny Kravitz kind of vibe on that song? Or maybe Lenny drank from the same fountain as you guys?[laughs]Oh man. Well, you know, it’s possible we were all drinking from the same fountain [laughs]. “Running” is an interesting song. That is the first song that we worked on together – imagine that, that was the beginning, and we said “okay, we got something!”. Adrian brought that riff in, and maybe that riff is where you’re getting that vibe from. And then the chorus I came up with it – that riff led me into the chorus. And that was the first thing we did. When we were talking about a sequence of songs on the record, we were trying to figure out what to do. We didn’t know if “Running” should be first, or “Taking My Chances”. And then finally we settled into what’s on the album right now.
Final question from me: what is next for you in 2021, another solo album or maybe the Winery Dogs?
Oh man, It’s so hard to make plans. I had big plans when I was coming out of this recording, the Smith/Kotzen record. I had all kinds of plans and then they all went out the window. So right now we’re doing as much as we can, to let people know about the Smith/Kotzen record. Interestingly, I’ve been talking to Stanley Clarke again and we got something we’ve been working on. I have to take in our time, nobody’s in a rush, but we’ll see what comes out of it. And I actually started writing some new music for myself, that’s very, very different than anything I’ve done. It’s very interesting. I played a song last night for Julia, my wife, and she said “wow, I never heard anything like that come out of this room”. That’s really something. Wow. So there will always be another solo record, as long as I’m walking around. I’ll always make my records and my music. And with The Winery Dogs, we did a tour in 2019. That was really just a great tour and I had a great time. That was one of my favorite tours I’ve done, and coming out of that, we were trying to throw around some ideas and then, you know, with COVID, that just knocked this out. Adrian‘s got a house here in LA, so he’s going to come back, and he and I are going to write more, but with Billy and Mike, you know, one guy’s in Pennsylvania, one guy’s in Nashville, I’m in California. To make a proper The Winery Dogs record, we gotta be in the same room. We don’t send files around. I kind of tried to do that earlier in the year. I had a song I put out called “Raise the Cain”, and I thought maybe we could try to write by sending some files around. But the reality is to do a The Winery Dogs record, we need to get in the room and throw ideas. Cause that’s how we work, and that’s the magic of that band. We’re going to do it, it’s just a matter of when it’s safe. Personally, I’m not willing to get on an airplane right now, I’m just not going to do it. But once things open up and everybody is clean and safe, then we can look at it.
Richie, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, man, all the best with this release and stay safe and healthy!
Thanks for the interview Rodrigo, stay safe!