Richie Kotzen is one of those rare artists who can continually reinvent themselves while never losing their own voice. Whether as a shred-god in the late 80’s, injecting some serious musical credibility into Poison on their Native Tongue album, playing fusion with Vertu, soul in his Wilson Hawk side project, stepping into Paul Gilbert’s shoes on some seriously great Mr. Big records, blasting out heavy rock with Mike Portnoy and Billy Sheehan in The Winery Dogs or following his muse wherever it may take him as a solo artist, Kotzen always brings the same fire, passion, soul and skill to everything he does. His latest album Salting Earth is the perfect encapsulation of this variety, with some retro-rockers, some modern rock cuts and some soulful balladry.
The setlist will draw from a good cross-section of Kotzen’s stylistic vibes, and it ties in with the variety found on the new record. “We’re doing something with this record that’s kinda different for me,” he says. “In the past, normally what I would do is I have such an expansive catalogue that songs would work their way into the set by how well they translate into a three-piece or for whatever reason. And when I would make a new record I would pick two or three songs from that to bring in. This time I will tell you we’re doing a lot of songs from the new record. We’re doing almost the entire record, but we also have moments in the set that I haven’t had before. For example, we have an acoustic section where our bass player comes out with an upright bass, and our drummer does percussion. I play acoustic guitar, and then we’ve got another four or five songs where I’m bouncing from electric guitar to electric piano, so in the end it’s kind of a perfect time for me to come to Australia for the first time because as far as all the tours I’ve done go, this one has the most value in it as far as showing all aspects of what I really do.”
“I grew up outside of Philadelphia,” says Kotzen. “And when I was a kid there was a huge soul, R&B thing happening there, and I was exposed to that. But then at the same time you had what is now called classic rock. Bad Company. Led Zeppelin. Jimi Hendrix. That kind of thing. So my pendulum swings between those influences I had as a little kid. Then when I started to learn the guitar, I was drawn towards the power of the rock side of things. But then more and more I found myself drawn towards things like George Benson and Allan Holdsworth, and for better or worse that’s reflected in the music I write.”
Over the years Kotzen has used plenty of different guitars: early on he was an Ibanez guy, and he was then briefly the face of Ibanez’s short-lived Starfield line of more retro-oriented designs. Kotzen’s current Fender model is a bound Telecaster with DiMarzio pickups, and the path to its creation took some interesting twists and turns. “I still have a few of those Starfields,” he says. “I gave a few of them to my friend [Shrapnel Records boss] Mike Varney a few years ago, but I do have a few of them. I have one on a stand in my house just because it’s such a pretty guitar. But that is actually what led to my Fender endorsement. I was making a record in 1991 and the bass player had a Fender deal. They came down to deliver a bass to him and they saw the Starfields and said ‘Eh, we’re not gonna have that, let’s get you some real guitars!’ [Laughs] So they gave me two guitars, a Tele and a Strat, and the brown Tele instantly became my main guitar. The red Strat is the guitar that you see me play on the Mother Head’s Family Reunion record, and that’s what led to the Fender signature models.”
But Kotzen’s main focus is now on his Australian shows. “I’m happy to have all the stars line up, so to speak,” he says. “I’ve been looking to come there for a very long time and we’ve never been able to make it happen. I don’t really know what to expect… I imagine it’s going to be a great run of shows and I know Australia is a beautiful country, but I know that if I have no expectations I’m never disappointed! So I don’t really expect anything beyond getting there safely and having all the gear we need to show up and have a great time and meet a bunch of new people, and hopefully win over some folks!”
Richie Kotzen is touring Australia in August as well as appearing at the Sydney Guitar Festival. Salting Earth is out now through Headroom-Inc Records.