Interview by A. Lee Graham of http://www.electricbasement.com
RICHIE KOTZEN (Ex-Poison, Mr. Big)
First off, let me say I'm a longtime fan. I remember putting the Guitar Player flexi-disc on my turntable before your first album came out.
Wow, that was a long time ago.
I double-checked my turntable speed to make sure it was right. Your playing was so fast! In fact, my roommate said your playing sounded like a video game.
(laughs) Yeah, that was a trick I made up back then. I was picking, and at the same time holding a chord while muting it. When you listen to it, you picture it moving really fast. But my left hand wans't moving at all - just my right hand, which went across the strings and switched chords really quick.
So switching chords quickly was your secret?
Yeah. The right hand would mute-pick.
There you have it: Richie Kotzen's secret for sounding like a video game.
(laughs) Of course, back then, the big deal was getting a sound page out. I'm just glad mine seemed to stand out.
Get Up showcases your versatility. Was that the intention?
I've made so many records over the years that have been all over the place in style. From the first record - that has very little to do with who I am now. Between then and now, I've done fusion records, vocal records. I've done a lot of things. But the core of what I do is on Get Up. I really wanted to make a record that was cohesive yet represented all the influences I've had, no matter how different they may be from each other. My second record, Fever Dream had a lot of those same qualities.
You didn't follow the debut with another shred fest.
My intent wasn't to be one of those guys, anyway.
You mean Vinnie Moore, Tony MacAlpine - the Shrapnel guys.
And Yngwie - those kind of players. I wanted to be more like Eric Clapton. I always wanted to sing and write songs. The thing with that first record was it was a chance for me to get out of Philadelphia and let people know I existed.
What are your favorite new tracks?
My favorite track is, without a doubt, "Remember."
What makes it stand out?
For me, that song - I've been rewriting versions of it my whole career. With that song, it enables me to sing in a way that's most comfortable for me to be singing in and being comfortable playing guitar. Lyrically, people can relate to it. It represents me well.
There's hard rock, '70s soul, even a Philly influence in there. Did that come from your Philadelphia upbringing?
I think a lot of it did. As a young kid playing guitar, I was into the rock guys: Van Halen, AC/DC, Black Sabbath and guitarists who played in those bands. But as a singer, I wasn't into what was going on. Those singers sounded like they were out of tune or screaming, so I started listening to soul music: Sam Moore, Stevie Wonder, Terence Trent D'Arby. I went crazy when I heard that record (The Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby).
My music has rock guitar, but it walks the line. It's rock, but it's definitely influenced by other forms of music.
So you wanted to merge different styles.
Yeah, it's nothing new, though. Lenny Kravitz has been doing it for years.
So has Stevie Salas, to name another.
So we're not doing anything new per se.
Many artists recorded Shrapnel releases in the '80s, but how did you wind up on the label?
Actually, when I was still in school in the '80s, I ended up on Shrapnel because, at the time, I was reading Guitar Player magazine every month.
The Spotlight column?
That's right. I had my eye on that and started sending stuff to Mike Varney. Initially, I didn't even think about the idea of making a record; I just wanted to be in Guitar Player.
I had a little trick. I made a little, four-song demo and sent the same demo every week, but changed the order.
Yeah. I didn't know what this guy (Varney) wanted, but maybe if there was a particular song he liked at the start of the tape, he'd call me back. Something finally caught his ear. He didn't call me until after a magazine article came out.
In Guitar Player?
Yeah. A friend from Boston told me I was in the magazine. I thought he was pulling my leg. But I never got a call until a few months later. He (Varney) asked me to make a record.
After a few months, then all of a sudden.
Yeah. It sometimes happens that way.
Was having Stu Hamm and Steve Smith as your side men intimidating? I mean, you were an 18-year-old kid!
I was lucky to go and make that record.
What led an instrumental guitar virtuoso to join Poison remains a mystery to some fans. How exactly did you hook up with Poison?
Keep in mind I was in a rock 'n' roll band before that. A lot of guys back then were guitar players that never left their personal recording studios. They were genius kinds of shredders, but it ended there.
I was always the guy who was decent on guitar, but was more into playing live and in my cover band back East. I'd throw my guitar in the air, really getting into the whole show. Even though Poison weren't the coolest band musically, they were flamboyant. When I made the record (Native Tongue), it was fun. Where it got to be a drag was when I had to play the old music.
Was it weird stepping into C.C. DeVille's shoes? Did you feel compelled to alter your guitar tone or image at all?
No. I was determinded to be myself, and that's what I did. I'd play his music my way. I kind of had no choice. I would have ended up suicidal if I had to do all those things. As long as it works, it works.
Did you consciously try to change Poison's sound, or did you try to mold your style to fit what they were doing?
I did without trying. Their sound had so much to do with C.C. and the singer and so little to do with the bass player and drummer. Once you take away what dictates 50 percent of the band (singer and guitarist), that changes things.
OK, I'd like to get this story straight. Were you fired for dating Rikki's fiance? I don't want to succumb to rumormongering, but some fans are curious to this day.
The truth was I was asked to leave after I volunteered that fact that I had seen Rikki's ex-fiance. I came to the conclusion that I'd rather be honest and tell them what was going on before they found out about the relationship. It was serious enough that it was something that needed to be talked about. If I had to make a commitment at the time between the band and her, I had to choose her.
There was no real drama, no throwing bags on the bus, no fistfights. The band said we can't continue with you as guitarist. I had signed a record deal with Geffen which put a lot of money in my bank account. I went on to do other things.
What was the Geffen release?
Mother Head's Family Reunion.
That's right. But when you left Poison, did you already have the Geffen deal? Did you have offers from other bands?
I was immediately signed to Geffen.
Was it a one-off deal?
No, a two-record deal. Unfortunately, the person who signed me left the label. I got lost in the shuffle and got dropped.
How did you land the Mr. Big gig? Filling Paul Gilbert's shoes must have been more intimidating than filling in for C.C.
I had a lot more in common with Paul.
Yeah, he's a "song guy," too, in addition