Richie Kotzen new solo album ‘Slow’ is releaed in Europe on Lion Records. The 19th of march 2002 I spoke to Richie Kotzen in L.A. on the phone for a while resulting in this interview. The whole conversation is transcribed here. Thanks Remco from the site richiekotzen.com for arranging this interview for me.
A shorter version of this interview was published in the Music Maker 2002 june issue. Copyright Richard Hallebeek and Music Maker. Copying stricly prohibited. Photos copyright Richiekotzen.com.
:: You’re back on your own after being with Mr. Big for a while?
‘Yeah, that’s right. I did a two year-run with Mr.Big and we made two studio albums, we just mastered a new live record that’s coming out and right now they’re editing a DVD, a video for the final live show that we did in Tokyo, a couple of months ago. And that’ll all be coming out real soon and Mr. Big’s over and I just finished a new solo record called ‘Slow’, that’s out now and I’m real excited about that. I’m actually gonna be going on tour in june to support that record.
:: How does it feel to be on your own again?
‘It’s good, you know. I mean, I started out as a solo artist, you know and made a few records and then I, obviously I played in a coupe of bands. First one being Poison and then I was in a band with Stanley Clarke called ‘Vertu’. And that was a real highlight for me. During the course of all that, I’ve been making solo records as well, you know. But now I thing with this new record that I’ve made I really was able to kinda take all the influences that I have and.. all the people that have influenced me that kinda made me what I am as a musician..I’ve been able to really put that into a sound I think on this record that’s really more of my own kind of sound. And I think a lot of records I did in the past I would experiment a lot with a lot of different directions and styles, but on this album, I’m real happy with the results, I feel really comfortable with the direction on this record.
:: Let’s talk about your new album a bit later, if that’s OK with you. Let’s dive a bit in your past first. Your debut album was produced by Jason Becker. Was that the first time you met him?
‘Yeah, that was through Shrapnel Records and that was a situation that came about.. I had been sending tapes to Mike Varney, he had a column called ‘Spotlight’ and I was featured in ‘Spotlight’ when I was 17 and he did a little story on me and then I was actually still in highschool. But once I finished school I went to San Fransisco and made my first record for Mike Varney and he thought it’d be a good idea to have me work with Jason Becker because at that time Jason lived out there and he had already made two records for Mike and then Jason and I were around the same age so he thought that would be a good chemistry for us to work together, and it really was. I had such a great time working with Jason and he was such an amazing musician and guitar player so obviously he kind of forced me to do better that I normally would have and really make sure that I put some things on there that I ordinairy wouldn’t have come up with, you know what I mean.
:: You picked up a lot of your sweeppicking stuff from him, right?
‘Yes, a lot of the sweeppicking stuff I kinda got from him and you know, of course, changed it a little bit for my own way, but whatever changes I made to the stuff was more just because of what was easier. I mean, at the time my sort of thing, that I was really good at was the more legato, like, left hand stuff you know, I was really able to play.. I could play long series of notes without ever even picking them and I was really into that sound, because I listened to guys like Allan Holdsworth and I liked that legato sound. Then Jason had the whole right hand thing happening with, you know, the picking and the sweeppicking, so he kinda turned me on to that. That’s defenitely where a lot of that stuff sorta kinda evolved.’
:: On your debut album, Varney hooked you up with Steve Smith and Stuart Hamm to accompany you. That must have been a great experience to play with those cats at such a tender age.
‘That was amazing, I mean, because here I was you know, my first record and there was Steve Smith who was, still is, one of the best drummers in the world. And of course, Stu Hamm, an amazing bass player I think at that time he was winning all the Reader’s Polls. So there was two monster musicians and I was this little 18-year old kid. (laughs) Needless to say I was very excited. And I listened a lot to what they said, you know. Even when they talked amongst themselves about parts and music and that’s one thing I’ve always done, I’ve been really good at listening. And also in playing music it is important to listen to what the other people are playing.
:: Any kind of advice they would give you?
‘Well, you know.. it wasn’t even so much specific advice as it was just experiencing what they know, it’s like almost just like being around..if you’re around musicians that are more experienced than you and that have done things that you have not experienced yet then you’re gonna pick stuff up. And it’s funny you know, because .. when younger musicians would ask me, what advice can you give? The best thing is to get with guys that are older than you that have done more and then you can pick things up. It’s not a specific thing, that they’re gonna tell you that’s gonna change your life, but it’s a combination of playing with them and hanging out with them.’
:: Another one of your albums from the past is ‘Electric Joy’. A lot of people actually hate that album and that’s the point where they lost interest in your playing. But for me it’s really one of my favorites, great mix between intense guitar playing and composing, nice loose atmosphere and general vibe. Do you remember anything about those sessions?
‘Yeah, that record is interesting in that it would have that much controversy in that people really liked it or really didn’t. It was a record that was made as a transitional record because I was basicaly fulfilling my final obligation to my record label and I was moving on. After that I was just to go on to make records for Interscope and do more singing. And so it was kinda like my last instrumental record for a while, you know, that was the idea behind it. I recorded everything in my house, I used to live outside of Philadelphia, in Pensylvania and I had a studio there. And I recorded everything on an 8-track. And (laughs) it’s really a weird way the record’s recorded, there’s a couple of songs in there that freak me out, ’cause I can hear the way it was recorded. It’s like, I did all the guitars and everything first and then I took the tape, the 8-track tape out to San Fransisco, went into a studio, dumped it up to 24-track and had Atma, Atma’s on that record, right? Atma Anur?
‘Yeah, he came in to play drums on that, to the stuff that I already recorded. So normally you would do a record and do drums first, but this way we did it backwards. And now, it’s funny, I do a lot of things like that now where I do everything and then I overdub the drums (laughs) It’s kind of a weird way of recording but sometimes it works and that’s how I did that record. So all the sounds, I got all the sounds myself, I just put a microphone in front of my amp and it was all Fender guitars on that record actually, it’s funny.. that was another transition from when I was leaving Ibanez.
:: There was some Ibanez tele model on the cover, right?
‘Yeah, it’s funny because like they were..I had bought two Fender guitars and I was playing them and Ibanez started making me Fender copies. But that was the transition and that guitar on the cover isn’t.. I didn’t even have that guitar when I made the record, that guitar is just used for the cover picture, a brand new guitar they just made for me, but I didn’t have that guitar when I made the record. I think I had, I used my two Fender guitars on that record and I used one other Ibanez for some of the solo stuff with the tremolo bar, you know what I mean?
:: Yeah, wow. The amps were Marshalls probably?
‘The amps were Marshalls, yeah defenitely. I had a friend of mine that I had bought a vintage Marshall from and I used that on the whole thing pretty much.
:: In that home studio set-up, did you use some isolation speakercabinet kind of thing?
‘Yeah, the speaker cabinet was in a real kinda dry room and yeah, that sorta thing. It’s a long time ago but I remember the room that I used to record in, it was in an old barn actually out in Pensylvania.’
:: That album has a special vibe I think.
‘Cool. Thank you.’
:: From that period on you really developed into a blues player. But you don’t sound like your average SRV-style copy. Where did you get your blues influences?
‘Well, you know, my blues sensibilities, I don’t necessarely know if they come from the blues. Like a lot of guitarplayers they play the blues and they listen to all these guys and they steal their licks. I never did that so that’s probably why I sound the way I sound. But I think some of my sensibilities for that style of music comes from a more rhythm and blues and soul music..like I said before, I grew up outside of Philadelphia and at the time, on the radio I would hear The Spinners and the OJ’s and that sort of music that was a Phyladelphia sound. So that kind of soulful thing I’ve always been exposed to that, I’ve played with a lot of these kinds of musician’s in my life and that comes through my playing. You know, I’ve always been a rock musician, I’ve always been considered a rock musician, but I have the sensibilities of an R & B and more jazz/fusion and that’s kind of, you know, that’s kind of what you hear, when I play the blues style it comes out in a different sort of way than an average blues player. And it’s part of blues guitar players, I love Stevie Ray Vaughan. I think he was one of the best guitar players ever, for any style, because he was so connected.’
:: That’s probably where your timing comes from, too. Your timing is very laid back and that was fun to hear with ‘white man rockers’ Poison and Mr.Big who sound very on the beat or rushing sometimes. You managed to make them sound a bit more relaxed and laid back.
‘Oh, that’s good, thanks! Yeah, it’s funny..It causes these problems for me sometimes with other musicians (laughter)
:: It’s funny because you don’t hear that really laid back timing too much in rock, but it works really well.
Man, I would drive the guys crazy. But that’s cool, thanks. It was funny playingin Mr. Big because everything they play is so on top. It’s like unbelievably on top. And they’d freak out on my sometimes, I just look at their faces, like I mean..there’s no fire! (laughs)‘
:: Yeah, take it easy. I read a while ago in an interview that you never practise. Is that still the case?
‘Well, I think that’s probably misinterpreted. I mean, basically, I spent my whole life, as a teenager and before I was a teenager, I started guitar when I was 6. So I spent from the time I was 6 ’till the time I was 21 practising, that’s all I did. Just practise and play the guitar. And then eventually I got to a point where I’d say, well, I can play all stuff and now I gotta start making music with it. And so what happened is, you start utilizing your facility as a musician and start making music with it. So that time you normally spend practising, you spend being creative and then you start working that muscle so you can be more and more creative That’s a problem with a lot of musicians, they get into that thing where all they do is practise, the same scales and licks over and over again. And then they have no depth, because all the can do is sit and widdle and play licks. And that’s great if you go on a stage by yourself and you can blow people away with how fast you can play. But if there’s nothing behind it, you’re not creating anything within a musical content, then it becomes kinda like, you know, watching a monkey climb a tree.’
:: How did you develop your legato technique? It’s one of the best around.
‘Oh thanks. I think.. you know what it is, I gotta be honest, some things came easier to me, some things don’t. So when I was learning like the things that I used to struggle with, as a young student of the guitar, where more like, really fast right-handed picking. I mean, I never really got into it, the sound of it never really attracted me for starters, I mean, I love it, I think it’s great, it’s impressive, it’s cool, it’s a great tool and I can do it, but as a young musician learning..I didn’t necessarely listen to those guys that did that kinda.. real fast picking and get excited about it. I was more into the spacial kinda flowing sound of like an Allan Holdsworth-style player. I liked the way it sounded and it came easier to me, or Eddie Van Halen, that’s another good example. You know, he did a lot of that legato stuff. It really came easy for me, so I kind of would do that all the time. And that’s kind of where it..it came out of that.’
:: Do you still listen to guitar players like Allan Holdsworth?
‘Every once in a while, you know, I’ll put on of his records, I mean, now at this stage, I don’t really listen to it as much. I got into, when I was playing with Stanley Clarke, they had me go and listen to all the jazz records. I got really into John Coltrane and sat down and learned his solo from Giant Steps..spent about three months learning that, note for note, playing along, just try and figure out why he’s playing those notes. Now it’s cool, I like playing that sort of thing. But just sitting around, listening to guitar players, I don’t really do that too much.’
:: How do you approach recording your own solos? Are you a one-take kinda guy?
‘Well, I wish I could do them in one take (laughs). No, I don’ t plan my solos, that’s the one thing that.. maybe it’s because I’m lazy or maybe it’s because I like to be sponteneous, whatever just seems to be cooler, I’ll use that one. (laughs) but, in all seriousness, I just basically like to go for it and see what I play instinctionally. And a lot of times a solo gets written that way, so you would go in a studio and you would get the luxury of being able to start and stop again and keep certain parts of the solo, if you want and replace things that are bad, so..I take advantage of that, you know, I ‘ll go in and play and parts of the solo that I play that I like, I’ll keep. Something I don’t like I’ll drop in and play again and fix it and then, you know, within in a few passes, in a perfect world, you’d have a great guitar solo you’re happy with. That’s how I usually work.’
:: Is there a difference in you live and recording guitar setup?
‘Yeah, I have a lot of guitars in my studio, for recording, most of them, most all of them are Fender guitars. I have a Yamaha guitar that I use sometimes, like a hollow body Gretsch-style guitar, that I’ve been using. For certain sounds it works appropriate. And then I have some standard-style stratocasters and then I have a couple of stratocasters with humbucking pickups that I use, there’s a black strat that I have that has a humbucking pick up that I use on a lot of my last record. And I also have a signature model telecaster and a stratocaster, but the telecaster is real special, you can buy that, from Fender. It’s like a regular telecaster but it has comfort cuts, like a Strat. Which is something that I kinda had them do for me like a long time ago wen I first got my Fender. And it has special pick ups, done by Dimarzio. The neck matches my neck on my guitar and it has a series/parallel switch that’s really cool for the middle position, for the lead tone. It’s a really nice guitar and that, that I play all the time. That’s like my signature model, I can go anywhere where they have that guitar and pick it up and be comfortable, ’cause it’s made to my specifications.’
:: But it’s only sold in Japan, right?
‘That’s correct. It’d be nice to get it out in other places right now, but right now, it’s sold in Japan.’
:: You produced your last album ‘Slow’ by yourself. Where did you get your producing and engineering skills? Was that just like trial and error?
‘Yeah, it was trial and error. It came out of a neccesaty, you know, I needed to make demos to get my music heard and so I started out with a four-track and now worked all the way up to what I have now. And that’s another thing when I say about paying attention and working with people that are talented, when I made the Poison record was the first time I was really in a world class studio, with a world class producer and engineer and I would ask them all sorts of questions and that sort of thing and since then I got to work with other people that were really talented and I picked things up, and you learn what sounds good. Well, it sounds good when you do this and if you do this, it’s not gonna sound good. It’s kinda..you figure it out over the years. It’s funny ’cause the guys in Mr.Big really liked the way some of my stuff sounded and so they had me engineer a lot of the new Mr.Big record that we did, we did it in my house. I’m actually getting into the idea of doing some production stuff, you know with other people. Because I enjoy that, I enjoy being in the studio and being creative that way.’
:: What’s exactly in your home studio?
‘Right now, yeah, I have the board, an O2R, but I don’t really use it, in other words, basically it’s just used for monitoring because I’m using the ProTools system. And I have the full-mix 24 ProTools and all the plug-ins and I have outboard gear, I have a lot of stuff that I need. I have a couple of channels of Neve, four channels of API, I have some Manley stuff, I have some tube compressors and I have everything that I need to get stuff on tape to where I want to get it on tape. Or I should probably say to get it on harddrive, I’m not using tape anymore. I used to have a tape machine in my studio, a 2″ machine. Then once I went to ProTools it was just so much easier to deal with, I never turned on to 2″ machines, so I got rid of that.’
:: Any tips for getting a good guitar tone to your harddrive?
‘Yeah, there’s some things, you know, that you wanna do. You wanna make sure what you’re recording is good. Make sure that you got a nice sound coming out of the amp. And then it’s not that complicated, you get the microphone in front of the amp in the right position, you get it through a nice mike preamp, maybe need to EQ it a little bit, put a little compression on it..’
:: You use the SM57?
‘Yeah, you can use a 57 or a 414 or whatever you want, I use a 57 most of the time. And then you can make it sound the way you want it to sound, but the most important thing I think, is above this, the sound is, what are you playing. Because that’s the thing, when you’re making a record, you can spend hours on a sound but it’s almost a waste of time, you gotta figure out what you’re gonna play. Sometimes the sound is almost irrelevant. If you have a great part, like a part that really fits the song and really takes it to another level, then the sound will come. It’ll be so easy to get the sound. But if you got some part that isn’t really right for the song, then it doesn’t matter how you mike it, it’s gonna sound like shit, you know what I’m saying? So much of it with any instrument is what you’re playing, if you’re playing the right kinda drumbeat or the right kinda bassline it’s gonna sound good . You know, you can go trough a Pignose and make it sound cool if it’s a cool part.’
:: How do you usually compose? Do you use some kind of sequencer to store your ideas and try out things?
‘They’re all different. I’ve got songs that I’ve written where I’ve started with a melody in my head and a lyric and sang it over and over. And then there’s songs where I sat down at a Wurlitzer piano and play a little riff and go on off of that. There’s songs where I’ve written off of the bass guitar. Sometimes I just pick up my electric guitar and start playing and I actually know I have a song. It just all comes in different ways. Sometimes, yeah, I sit down and program a beat on a beatbox. And then I overdub a few things and get a cool track going and I write a song that way, it just depends.’
:: You have built your studio yourself, right?
‘Yeah, I bought my house in 1996, I moved here and I knew I was gonna put a studio in and I knew I wanted it to be soundproof ’cause I knew the kinds of hours that I wanted to be able to work and the flexibility that I wanted to have. So I spent four months being a contractor. I did it myself, ’cause I knew what I wanted to do and I knew how I wanted it done and it just made sense for me. Now I have a really nice studio that I can work in any hour and no one, none of my neighbours can hear it. I had my friends come over, we’ve had parties here and played in the studio ’till four in the morning and no one never knew we were here.’
:: What’s the secret? A floating room?
:: ‘Slow’ sounds a bit more hip than your previous albums. Can you tell me something about the recording process?
‘Well, this record, I took a lot more time with. Some of the songs are well over two years old. What I was able to do, is go back and really go through my archives of songs and pick the best ones. I might have ended up with 5 songs that I thought were really cool and then I’d just dial them in, some of them were already half way recorded and I just went back and fixed things and made up sounds like the way I wanted the sound. And that became the core of the record and then I wrote the rest of the record around that. Because I wasn’t under any pressure and I hadn’t made a record in a while, I just really relaxed and made sure that if a song didn’t sound the way I wanted it to sound, then I didn’t use it, you know. And if I didn’t think it made sense to be on the record, then I didn’t put it on. Where in the past, I would just say, fuck it, I’m just gonna put this on and put that on..with this one, I was hard on myself, I was relaxed and hard on myself at the same time. I was relaxed in the sense that I wasn’ t rushing, to get it fixed and I was hard on myself in that I wasn’t settling for something less than I really liked. And I think I ended up with a better record that way. And having the flexability of working within something like ProTools, I’m able to do things like take a drumbeat and loop it, you know, stuff what everybody does, nothing new, nothing special. But in the past, my records have always been very live-performance oriented, where you have a complete band sitting there playing. With this record, if feels like a band playing. But it also has elements of some of the other things that are happening in a more contemporary style of music.’
:: You’ve played all the instruments yourself.
‘On this album, I’m the only guy on the record, yeah.’
:: Isn’t that hard for the style of music you’re playing? There’s no interaction going on because you’re the only one there.
‘(laughter) You know, it’s funny to watch, I should set up a camera next time, the funniest thing is when I play the drums. Basically what I have to do, is I gotta make sure I got enough time when I hit record, to run into the backroom and shut the door, get behind the drums, put the headphones on and get the sticks in my hands all in time for the count-off. And that’s gotta be the funniest thing if anyone could see, because I’m in there by myself. And to even get the drumsound sometimes I’ll have like a friend come in and just like say, can you hit that tom over and over, can you hit the bassdrum, then I’ll hit it and record it, it doesn’t sound right, it’s too loud, whatever, I gotta adjust it, but then I have it set up, so once I got all my sounds, I can jump around. The drumset stays there and the mikes stay there so if I need to get a drumsound, boom, I’m there. It’s ready to go. If I want to get a guitar thing it’s already mike’d up, just turn it on, cool.’
:: You’re drumperformance suprised me, when and where did you learn that?
‘Ah, it’s an illusion, man. It’s a total illusion. I basically (laughs) I can play certain things really, really well and then everything else is a nightmare, but I think the thing that makes the drums work for me, I’m not really a great drummer, I’m not a good drummer. But I have great concepts..I think, for drums. I have a great concept of what the drums should do in my music. So I know how to deliver that. Make that happen in my music. So that why it sounds good ’cause I’m playing, like I said earlier, I’m playing the right parts for the song. And so I’ll go in there and I’ll play through the entire song and then I’ll listen down and then if I really hit a groove I like, then I grab that and I’ll use that a couple of times in the song, you know. And then it feels the way I want it to feel.’
:: OK, I understand. So it’s copy and paste work.
‘Yeah, yeah defenitely.’
:: There’s some great hip processed guitar tones on the tune ‘Slow’ itself.
‘Oh yeah (laughs). That first sound in the beginning, that’s a guitar. That wild sound, sounds like a speaker is gonna blow up.. I guess you wanna know how I did that right?’
‘It’s basically a.. I was working on that song and I was trying to get a sound and a lot of the guitars in there are direct, like plugged right in..what do they call that, a line transformer, you know what I mean? The direct box, I plug right into a direct box.
:: What kind of box is that?
‘It’s a D-72, it’s a Telefunken. Anyway, so I plug into that direct, right? But before I get into it, I was fucking around with it, I don’t know if I was drinking or what was wrong with me, but I started plugging in a bunch of boxes and I went into the fuzzface box and then I went into an octave pedal and then I went into like a real powerful distortion pedal. And then I went into the tube direct box, into the ProTools. And when I would play a note on the guitar, it would sound a note, but if I’d take my hands off it would go berzerk. It would make the most insane feedback sounds. But it was kinda cool, it was like a whole different kinda instrument, it didn’t even feel like a guitar, it didn’t sound like a guitar. You had to play it in a different way. So I put up a track and I recorded the entire song of me just soloing over the whole song on one track with that sound. And then what I did, I listened down and thought, wow,that’s a cool lick, I grab that. That’s a cool lick, I grab that. Then I have 5 or 6 licks that I thought were real cool and I made up like theme and put them in and out of the song, you know what I’m saying? Which in ProTools is really easy to do that.’
:: You did an instructional video a long time ago. Any plans of doing another one soon? Maybe about your blues playing?
‘Actually, it’s funny you should ask, I am doing an instructional video, I’m gonna be shooting that in april, the 19th to the 20th. I’m gonna make an instructional video, I haven’t yet exactly decided what is gonna be in it, still working that out. But I’m gonna make a video and obviously be showing my techniques and that sorta thing.
:: You have a 4 year old daughter. Is she doing anything in music already?
‘I’d rather see her become a basketball player! I think that she should. She only four, but she’s real tall and she’s got a lot of energy. And she’s really smart, she sits down at the piano and she doesn’t know what she’s doing but she tries to make music and she has a little drumset in her room that I bought for her and she gets behind that. I got a little videotape of her playing the drums and me playing a guitar, it’s pretty funny. So you never know. Would I like to see her get into music? No she’s gotta go through what I have to go through. It is a rollercoaster, you know. Ups and downs can make you crazy.’
:: Copyright Richard Hallebeek and Music Maker magazine 2001 ::