Richie Kotzen on his 20th solo album, Cannibals
At face value, Richie Kotzen and Prince would appear to have little in common. But upon closer inspection, the two artists do share some striking similarities: Both released their debut albums when they were only 19 years old. They favor Telecasters (Kotzen has his own Fender signature model). Both tend to record in private, at home, performing most of if not all the instruments. And both artists are extremely prolific: Prince's last album, 2014's Art Artificial Age, is his 33rd studio disc, while Kotzen's just-released Cannibals is his 20th solo recording.
“Prince has a bit of a head start on me," Kotzen says, "so I've got some time to catch up to him. Actually, I just found out that Cannibals is album number 20 for me. It sounds like a lot, but I seem to average an album a year. Some years I have more content than others – in 1999, I put out four records. But I just write when I’m inspired, and I document my ideas. At some point, I go back and listen, and if I find four or five things that excite me, that’s when I think, ‘OK, I’ve got a record here.’ That’s kind of what happened with Cannibals.”
Kotzen recently sat down with MusicRadar to discuss the new album, how old ideas become new songs, and what it was like to collaborate with an exciting new musical talent – his daughter.
This isn’t the first album of yours to be an almost all-Richie affair. You like the one-man band approach, don't you?
“I guess so. This one is pretty much all me. I played drums, bass, keyboards and guitar. Dug Pinnick does a duet with me. Julia Lage, my girlfriend, who’s a great bass player and singer, she sings backgrounds on a couple of songs – anytime you hear a female voice, that’s her. And the drummer from my solo band, Mike Bennet, played percussion on the song Shake It Off.
“And actually, Billy Sheehan sings on the record, on the song Stand Tall. Julia and I went out to dinner with Billy and his wife, Elizabeth, one night. We came back and I played them the record, and the girls started singing these R&B licks in the background. Then Billy started singing in this low, crazy voice – the whole thing sounded great. I was like, ‘I have got to have this on the record!’
“So I put a live mic up, handed Billy a lyric sheet, and we did the song line by line; he doubled my vocal through the whole thing. You can hear Julia and Elizabeth doing these screaming, wailing R&B licks in the background. It all added a new dimension to the song.”
A few of the songs on the album took a while to come together. You recorded most of Come On Free 10 years ago. Why did it sit around for so long?
“That’s hard to say. It wasn't its time, I guess. I went back and remixed it, but it’s still the original track – the original drums, the same bass and guitar. What happened was similar to Stand Tall: I had some friends from Brazil over to my house one night; I played them the track and they loved it – they started singing and chanting to it. I went, ‘Fuck, I want that on the record!’ So I put up a live mic up and got them on there, chanting and screaming and doing all of that nonsense.”
On his influences
Does the fact that you’re now in the Winery Dogs cause you to look at your material differently? "This is for the band, this is for me" – that kind of thing?
“Not really. The first Winery Dogs record was a different kind of situation because the band really needed to be defined, and a lot of that came about very naturally. Back then, I had some pieces of songs that would have wound up on the new solo record, but of course, I didn’t know the band was going to take shape. We threw ideas around and started writing. Billy would show up with a bass riff, we’d play it together, and Mike would say, ‘Hey, why don’t we do this to it?’ We’d chart out instrumental song templates, and then I would turn them into songs with lyrics and melodies. Occasionally, the guys would bring in stuff they had melodies to, as well.
“I did bring in some things that I had written on my own. I’m No Angel was finished. The chorus to Elevate was finished. We Are One was pretty much finished instrumentally. Regret and Damage were finished, too. There were a few, and yeah, they would’ve ended up on a solo record.
“We just finished the writing for the next Winery Dogs record, and we approached it the same way as the first one. Everybody threw ideas around and made templates and skeletons. Again, what I’ll do is, I’ll take the arrangements of instrumental ideas and I’ll write words and melodies, and then we’ll see how many of them come to fruition. If we have 15 of them and they all work, then the record’s done. If only seven of them make it, then we either repeat the process or I dig into the vault to see what else is there. But I never differentiate – I write what I write.”
I made a Prince comparison before. Actually, there’s a bit of a Prince vibe in the riff of the title track, Cannibals, but there’s also some Devo, too.
[Laughs] “That’s good. I hadn’t thought of that. Devo’s a funny one for me. My parents were throwing a party when I was a kid. Everybody was drunk and having a good time, and the song Whip It came on. My father was doing a line dance and banging around like a madman. Every time I hear the Whip It bassline, I’m kind of traumatized by that vision of my family and friends acting like lunatics.
“Prince was definitely an influence early on. I really love his album Sign O’ The Times. But you know, I’ve been making records for so long – I almost forget who my influences are. I don’t even think about it. When I wrote the song Cannibals, I had the melody and the lyric concepts. Once I had the chorus down, I heard this crazy bassline and I just rolled with it.”
Working with his daughter, August
The solo section is pretty insane. What’s going on there?
“I’ve been playing with my fingers for a long time, so I decided to do a total fingerstyle solo but with a super-clean tone. It’s a really fast compression and a fast release, and that makes every note pop out. It took a while to figure out how to execute the whole thing properly. It’s a nutty solo – it comes out of nowhere – and it kind of takes care of needing a bridge to the song.”
The songs In An Instant and The Enemy came about by combining old and new ideas. I guess you never throw anything old, huh?
“Not really. You never know when something will make sense, even if it doesn’t at the moment. For the song The Enemy, I was sitting in a restaurant, and the melody and lyric came to me at the same time. I pulled out my iPhone and started singing, and then I got the chorus together. I started demoing it, and I came up with a verse once I had the form laid down. When I listened back to it, though, I really hated the verse – it seemed so bland – and so I tabled it.
“When I went back through the archives, I found this other song with an intro and verse that both sounded like they could fit with the newer song. I put them together and discovered that the tempos matched perfectly, so I merged the drums from the old chorus and the new verse, and gradually I was able to put it together. I had to switch some keys around, manipulate some stuff, but it all worked. You’ve got two different drum sets recorded 10 years apart, and you can’t even tell.
“Same kind of gag for In An Instant. The intro and the bridge are both old, and I redid the other parts. When it comes to that pre-chorus, that particular part is from 10 years ago. I pulled parts of performances that I always loved and made them fit together. The trick is to make them sound seamless, as if it all came at once.”
Your daughter, August, originally came up with the song You on piano. As a father, that’s got to feel pretty cool.
“Definitely. I can't tell you how amazing it is to have recorded something that she came up with. August is a great writer, and she’s working on her own record right now. That particular piece, the one that’s on the record, is a piano piece she was playing for a long time. I think she came up with it when she was 14 or something – she’ll be 18 this June. I said to her at one point, ‘What is that? Every time you sit down at the piano, you play that one thing.’ I just really loved it and thought there was something to it.
“So I threw mics up at the piano and recorded her. She literally played it for seven minutes until I finally said, ‘OK, OK, I think we got it.’ [Laughs] This past summer, I found the song on the drive. It was never finished, but I thought it was too cool to ignore. I condensed it, wrote lyrics for it and did a vocal on it, and when I played it for her she really liked it. But then she got mad – ‘Hey, that’s my song! I wanna do a version of it.’ I told her, ‘You can do that, but it’s going on my record, too.’” [Laughs]
On similarities to Chris Cornell
How do you two get on musically? Any age gap in your tastes?
“She’s into a lot of classical stuff because she does ballet. She likes a lot of choral-choir stuff, which I can get into as well. She’s into a lot of modern music, and to be honest, I don’t even know who some of these people are. Stuff that I hear from her sounds cool and creative, but I just don’t have a sense of what’s current or where it comes from. Every now and then I hear a band she’s playing that I like, but I’m clueless as to who they are. She likes to make fun of me – I’m her dad, you know. [Laughs]
“But that’s OK because I don’t want to be involved in her creative process; I don’t want to influence what she does or what she listens to. If she comes to me for advice, I’ll give it to her. But I don’t wanna be like the dad going, ‘Listen to this Led Zeppelin record.’ Let her do her own thing, you know?”
How did you and Dug Pinnick get together to work on I’m All In?
“I’ve known Dug for a while. We were both at Jerry Cantrell’s house for a barbeque – it’s Los Angeles, so you know how it is. Dug was talking about the Winery Dogs and how he really liked the record. He wanted to do something, which I was into. I went home and listened to the track, and I immediately thought it would be a cool one to do a duet on.
“I called Dug, he came over, and I gave him a lyric sheet. I had my guide vocal on it already, so we went over it and decided which lines I should sing, which ones he should take. The whole thing came together really quickly, and he sounds so cool on it.”
It would be great to hear you and Chris Cornell do a duet one day. There is a similarity to your voices.
“Oh, well, hey, thanks. That would be interesting. I hear that constantly – people say that our voices sound similar. But you know what? If we did a duet, I think you would actually hear how different our voices are. I’d certainly be into trying that. If I have to be compared to anybody, how cool for it to be Chris Cornell? I think he’s awesome, one of the best around. Sure, I’ll take that comparison. No problem.”