Ten years and three albums into their run, The Winery Dogs, formed by a trio of alpha dogs known for virtuoso musicianship, are now a true pack. Guitarist and vocalist Richie Kotzen, bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Mike Portnoy on Feb. 3 released “III,” a cohesive and rocking effort that should put to rest any lingering doubts that the WDs are a side project — an easy assumption to make when the band was initially announced because of the members’ deep resumes and busy schedules.
Kotzen, Sheehan (Mr. Big, Talas, David Lee Roth) and Mike Portnoy (formerly with Dream Theater and Avenged Sevenfold and currently balancing a list of projects too long to include here) gathered at Kotzen’s home studio in Cornell, in west Los Angeles County, to record “III,” an album that shows the breadth of the Dogs’ abilities from anthemic rockers to slow-burning blues and everything in between.
The band is about to hit the road, with stops scheduled for Feb. 16 at Penn’s Peak in Jim Thorpe, Pa., Feb. 17 at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, just outside of Philadelphia, and Feb. 21 at Sony Hall in New York.
We recently chatted with Kotzen, who is from Reading, Pa., about his lyrics, putting songwriting first despite the band members’ ability to shred and Smith/Kotzen, his band with Iron Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith.
There are a lot of different lyrical themes on “III.” What was inspiring you to write?
When I write songs on my own, the music comes around the same time as the lyrics. If I come up with a melody, I can change the lyrics. With the Winery Dogs it’s a little different. We take ideas that Mike and Billy and I come up with and arrange that into a form and I’m left to write to that. So in some ways it’s already set in stone. But on the good side of that, that’s what I think is charming about the band, I think that’s what really defines the band: how we react to each other.
To address your question, some songs are about seduction, like the song “Breakthrough,” songs about people trying to knock you off your game, like “Xanadu,” talking about you’re in an idyllic place and someone might be trying to knock you off your spot and kind off dealing with that kind of vibe. “Gaslight” is kind of self-explanatory, it’s about being gaslighted (laughs). “Stars” seems to be another seductive-type song.
Once I start analyzing that stuff … I tend to write more conversational lyrics. I’m not a real concept guy. The lyrics I write are people lyrics.
Who are some lyricists you were inspired by growing up?
Well, I love Bob Seger because he’s such a great storyteller. And I love Don Henley, two big ones for me. The Elvis Costello records “Spike” and “Mighty Like a Rose” were very influential on me as well.
How do the Winery Dogs balance the melodies and catchiness with showing your instrumental chops?
It just kind of happens instinctively. All those bits of “oh wow, these guys can really play” kind of come together in the very beginning and it kind of comes together very quickly just by the nature of who we are and what we do, when we’re set up and throwing ideas around and everything gets recorded. But we all love a certain era or certain eras of rock, whether it be The Who or Zeppelin, those kinds of bands, and I think there’s a lot of that in what we’re doing.
Even though I’m known as a guitar player, my primary focus my whole life has been writing and recording my songs, so I have that song-first mentality, so I think that’s a big part of what you would describe, of what you just said, the element of catchy. You don’t have to be a musician to connect to it. I’m more connected to that than the muso things. I went through that trend as a teenager but my best streamed song, “You Can’t Save Me,” doesn’t even have a guitar solo, so my contribution to the Winery Dogs comes more from the songwriting and vocals.
Tell us about your home studio, where you recorded much of “III.”
It’s a small place. The house itself is big but really with all the square footage I have, the studio is not very large. [The studio is] divided in two floors into two rooms. One room is the control room and below that is the live room. It’s not really large but big enough to do what we gotta do. I’ve done the Smith/Kotzen record there, a lot of that was done there. Did Winery Dogs here, did [solo album] “50 for 50” here. I’ve done quite a few things here.
There’s a system of how I work, a creative process. Everything is set up to run what I would say is a round-robin situation. My drums are always there mic’d up, the guitar is always mic’d. I can always go back and clean something or amend something if I need to and still have that sound that I started with. It’s set up for convenience for me, it’s not suited to rent out to anyone. I’ll never make it a public facility, but it’s certainly perfect for me.
As a guy from not too far from Philly, is there any special significance for you playing shows like the one you’ll have at the Keswick in Glenside?
There are people, my parents, of course, come to my shows when I play there. I moved away when I was barely 21, so the majority of my life has happened in Los Angeles, so the LA shows are usually the ones where the guest list is out of control (laughs). A friend for two that I went to high school with, a cousin or two [come to Pennsylvania shows], it’s pretty calm when I go back there. I love going back to Pennsylvania because it’s such a beautiful place. It’s definitely not mayhem, my phone doesn’t ring off the hook. It’s a handful of folks.
So much of my influence musically was carved out in that scene back there. We used to play Reading, we used to play the tri-state area, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. Those years, I was a teenager playing with adults. I was a standout because I was very young. If you can surround yourself with musicians who know a little more that you in a certain area, that’s how you can grow. I was lucky that I was able to connect with some really great musicians.
How did you initially hook up with Adrian Smith?
We’ve been friends for about 10 years. There’s a spot in Los Angeles where musicians go, a bar and hotel. I was there and my friend was talking to a woman, they got on to talking about music. My friend started talking about me and it turns out this woman was Adrian’s wife and I found out and said I would love to meet Adrian Smith. I’m a massive fan of him and the band.
We were friends for years then threw a jam session as his house one night. It was suggested that we write a song or two, so that’s how it started. We got together at my place and realized we kind of were on to something.
Do you plan on doing more with Smith/Kotzen?
Yeah, yeah, in our off time we were doing some writing and the intent is to continue.
Photo by Travis Shinn
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