Ritchie Kotzen Sits Down With Side Stage Magazine

Written By: Anya Svirskaya

Side Stage Magazine: Congratulations on the new record, Salting  Earth. First of all, this is your 21st solo album. That’s amazing!

Richie Kotzen: Yeah, I guess I’ve been at it for a long time. Yeah, the new record’s called Salting Earth, and we released it about a month ago. We’re out touring, and about halfway into our US tour. It’s going really well, and I’m happy that people seem to be responding well to the new material. We’re playing a lot from the new record on this tour which is always to have the opportunity to play new music, so it’s been going well.


After 21 albums how hard is it to form a setlist?

Well, it’s interesting. You know, in the past we’ve been playing together for a long time. Seven years for me and my drummer and it’ll be six in October for all three of us together, for the bass player, so you know, we know a lot of old material. In the past, I really would just kind of call out tunes as the show went on. Sometimes we’d go on stage without a setlist and just kind of call tunes and go for it. This time, I really put together more of a show. We’ve got some elements where we’re kind of doing more of an acoustic thing which is interesting and then we’ve got a lot of songs that are more piano driven, and then of course the power trio guitar stuff that I’m more known for, we’ve got that in there. The big difference this time is we actually wrote out a really solid setlist that, that’s been working really well, so I’m happy about that.


Speaking of songs being more piano driven. I’ve noticed that this album is a bit more piano driven as opposed to the shredding that you’re known for. Was that something you wanted to do on this record?

It just kind of happened that way. I pretty much write whenever. I wrote in the course of a year, so I don’t really think about anything other than whatever I’m writing in that moment, so sometimes you have songs that are kind of more piano based, sometimes guitar based or something else, and so when I sat back and looked at everything I had done, I picked out the 10 songs that were my favorites, really, and the 10 songs that I thought fit best together, and it just turned out that we had more of that vibe on the record. I’ve always had songs on records that were kind of based around the piano, but I think this record has a little bit more of that, and I certainly haven’t really explored that live to the level that I do on this tour, so it’s a lot of fun for me, and I think it’s nice for the audience too. You know, 90 minutes of an electronic guitar can get grating after a while, so having it broken up with some other tonalities I think is effective.


I agree it’s always good to change things up… Going back to the record, songs “My Rock”, “End of Earth”, and “Meds”. What can you tell me about them?

Well, “ End of Earth” is the opening tack on the record. That’s one of the newest compositions I’ve wrote. Actually, that song and “Meds” are newer songs. The cool thing that kind of evolved with the song “Meds” on this tour, when we were in rehearsal I was just kind of messing around on the piano and on the record, that song’s really guitar driven, but we came up with a new arrangement for the live show where I’m really doing it on the electric piano which is kind of fun, and it adds another vibe to the show. That song actually seems to really go over well. People seem to really connect with it. Then the song “ My Rock” is a song that I’ve had around for a while.


I had a different recording of the song that almost was released a couple of years ago as a single, and I’m glad I didn’t because I had the opportunity to go back and actually re-record it and make it much better than it was, so that song, that’s also one of my favorites on the record. It’s another song that just has a very simple production. It’s really just bass drums and piano, and that’s it, other than a bunch of vocals that we, that I overdubbed. It’s a pretty honest recording, you know? Pretty simple, but I think it works well for the song.


You mentioned you had the song for a while. When you were writing this album, did you have material that maybe you’d written in the past and also anything that was not used for this record?

Oh yeah. That happens all the time. I’m not sure how many songs I have in various stages of completion, but I will say that once I got rolling on this record, at some point I went back and started listening to some things that I had written that I never released, and I found “Make It Easy”, I found “Thunder”, and I did some updates to those songs and they ended up being on the record as well. You know, I have the luxury of doing that. Never really work off of a deadline.


I end up in a situation where I can really handpick songs, some that are written currently, some that have been written years ago, and some that are just incomplete that I couldn’t finish years ago but then suddenly now come up with ideas to finish them. There’s no real rules in the writing process for me. I just like that flexibility and freedom to do whatever I want and then usually what happens is because of that freedom, I think I end up with a better quality record. A lot of times in the past you do records and every now and then you’d have a filler song just because you had a deadline to meet and I’d end up releasing something that I normally wouldn’t have released, but nowadays when I work the way I work without a label and without any kind of real deadlines, I know that every song I release is finished and sounds the way I wanted.


That’s great. No pressure…. After you finish the  tour what is your plan? Are you going to look at your write new material, or just take a little bit of a break before you start going to the studio again?

Yeah. You know, it seems to be a typical pattern where I put a record out and we do a bunch of dates and sometimes the tour lasts in total with all territories, it might go for a year, sometimes more, sometimes a little less. I don’t really have any way of knowing where this one’s going to end. I know we’ve got dates all through this year, and there’s already some things coming in for next year, but typically over the course of an album cycle when I feel the inspiration, I’ll do a little writing here and there, so hopefully the timing works out that I have enough new material by the end of this to start working on something else.


Over the years, you’d had the pleasure of working with so many great musicians. What musical experiences and projects really stand out to you?

Well, in 1999, I was in a band with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White who are really iconic jazz fusion musicians, and that was very interesting for me because it was a little bit outside of what I normally do, so that was very fun and educational. In 2006, I had the honor of opening for The Rolling Stones, which was very surreal.


Oh wow

Yeah  I’m not sure how I ended up getting that opportunity, but it was one of those things that I didn’t really talk about until after I did it because I was nervous that it would fall through. We ended up doing five or six shows together and then once I finished the first one, I’m like, “Okay, this happened. I can start talking about it.” Those were two big highlights for me, for sure.


This thursday on May 11 you’re playing in my area, in New York. Do you enjoy performing in NYC, and what can we expect from the show?

Well, it’s always fun because you know, I lived in California for more than half my life, but I did grow up outside of Philadelphia, so I’ve got so many friends and family back in the northeast, so usually when I get back there, like the New York show. We’ve got a couple, we’ve got a show outside of Philadelphia, couple other Pennsylvania shows, so it’s always great to do those shows where you’ve got friends and family that still live back there coming out and it becomes a little more special on that regard on a personal level, but what’s really great on the tour is that we’ve had really great audiences and very, very responsive across the country so far, so just want to continue that good vibe, you know? Right through the whole tour.


Going back to the record, what is your personal favorite track and why?

Oh, God. It’s so hard to pinpoint, but I guess off the top of my head, yeah, “ This Is Life”  is one that I really love. I really like the way that turned out and “My Rock” is one that I’m really happy with. I’m happy with all of them. You know, you start naming songs and it almost undermines some of the others, but like I said, there’s only 10 songs on the record and I knew that each song had its reasoning for being there. There’s no filler or anything, so I think they’re all special in their own rights.


One of things I’m curious about, a musician as busy as you are, what do you do when you’re not creating music?

Well, that’s a good question. I like to do stuff around the house, believe it or not. I’m always kind of working on my place and I just moved recently, last year I bought a new place and moved in. It needed a lot of work, so I did a lot of it myself. I put in some new flooring in one of the rooms and I did some drywall work and reframed out something in another room. Did some electrical, so I keep myself busy that way. I guess if I wasn’t a musician, I probably would’ve been doing something in the construction business.


And what are you listening to currently?

Really not much of anything. I really don’t carry a lot of music around with me when I tour, and I think it really is because there’s so much going on musically with the band, we’re always playing and improvising, and I think really what happens after a show aside from just kind of socializing with some people, after a show, you kind of want to just really tune out and oftentimes just not listen to music is a blessing.


When I’m not in this touring mode, I still like classic stuff. I love putting on a Curtis Mayfield anthology or listening to the Eagles. My daughter makes fun of me because I listen to the Eagles and Hall and Oates and Steve Miller and she calls it dad rock. I guess I’m not too hip with my musical tastes, but occasionally she plays me some new stuff that’s very interesting. I don’t know who any of these bands are, but there’s definitely some really cool stuff out there that I’ve heard from my daughter.


What are just some of the lessons that you have learned in your long career, and what advice do you have for musicians today?

Well, you know, the only real lesson I can say, when I was very young, I would set goals for myself that were outside the realm of things I could really control, but I would towards them, being it trying to get a record deal or whatever it may be. For a long time, things really went according to plan, and then somewhere in the nineties I started realizing, “Well, there’s a lot of variables in this business that really are out of your control,” so I kind of shifted to things that I could control, and really what that comes down to is honing your craft. There’s always something to learn.


You’ve never learned it all, and just doing the work. Really being consistent and following your inspiration when it comes to writing. There’s a lot of things you can control which is honing your craft, your writing, and following that inspiration. I kind of make sure now that if I put something out and release it it’s 100% what I wanted it to be. There are things that you can kind of control and work towards  that make you better at what you’re doing, so that’s kind of what I focus on.


What is your message to your fans?

I’m just really thankful that I’m in a position where I’m able to make the music that I really want to make, music that is true to me that I believe in and that’s turning into a situation where I can, or it has been a situation for a long time where I can go out and play my music to an audience that’s interested and survive by doing that. I’m very thankful for that.


Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me. I wish you all the best with the tour and safe travels.

Great, well thank you very much.

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