Smith/Kotzen’s Richie Kotzen: “You’ve Gotta Do the Work. You’ve Gotta Take Action.”

Photo by John McMurtrie

For fans of heavy music, Adrian Smith and Richie Kotzen need no introduction. The former is the longtime guitarist of high-flying metal legends Iron Maiden, while the latter’s pedigree includes acts like Poison, Mr. Big, and The Winery Dogs, not to mention his own solo albums. So it’s unsurprising that their new collaboration, a self-titled album under the name Smith/Kotzen, shows off a myriad of influences and musical flavors. Recorded just before the pandemic swept the world, Smith/Kotzen is a cross-sampling of the duo’s countless musical influences, and features everything from metal to R&B. Of course, given how busy the guys are, that the record got made at all was a bit of a feat.

“What we had to do — because we didn’t know any of this crazy pandemic thing was going to happen, obviously — was schedule this release to fit between all of the other stuff,” explains Richie Kotzen. “Iron Maiden had dates, I had solo dates to support my record 50 For 50, so it was tricky to pick a timeline. So we picked March of 2021 to release, which thankfully held. But the tour was supposed to be April, and that’s the thing that got sacrificed. Thank God we were able to release it — that worked out perfectly. Now, the struggle is, are we going to be able to tour on it.”

Have you been reading reviews and responses to Smith/Kotzen, or do you not pay attention to that stuff?

I have been reading some things, it seems like people like it and it’s been well-received, so that’s very cool. It always feels good when you spend all this energy on a record, writing songs…it’s exhausting. I always say, I go through a very odd feeling of depression after I finish a record. Not so much when I release it, but when I finish it, when it’s done and waiting to be released. I always fall into this weird headspace of emptiness. So now that it’s released, it’s kind of nice to see people responding to it in a positive way. 

When did this collaboration with Adrian go from jam sessions to a full album?

Well, we were getting together and jamming — he’d have these holiday parties at his LA house, so we’d have these fun jam sessions. And his wife Natalie at one point said, ‘You guys are both in town, you’re not doing anything — you should try and write something, do some writing.’ So we did, and one thing led to another. I knew we were on to something with “Running,” the first song, and we just followed through with it. I’m glad I did — normally, I’m the lead singer, the primary songwriter, but this time I have a partner in crime, so it’s pretty cool.

Did you guys have specific sound in mind going into the record?

We allowed the creative process to dictate the direction of the music. We never put parameters up as far as the creativity would come together — he’d come up with a riff, and I’d say, ‘Oh, that’s cool, I have an idea for the chorus.’ We never said, ‘Make sure you don’t do anything like this or like that.’ The process led us to the direction.

What is it about Adrian that fostered this prolific working environment?

It’s all about timing with these kinds of things. People say all the time, you should do something, you should work together. I have a lot of friends who are musicians with whom I’ve talked about these sorts of things. But at a certain point, you have to actually do it. And the thing with Adrian and I is that we actually did it, you know? We didn’t just get together one weekend, have a couple of beers and talk, we got into a room and started working. I think you’ve gotta do the work. You’ve gotta take action. And then things can happen. I think that’s true about a lot of things. A lot of people have these ideas about how their lives should be — this should happen, that should happen, and then they get frustrated when things don’t go the way they imagine, but if you look closely, a lot of times you’re not taking the steps to achieve that goal. I think we just did it — we went in there and made it happen.

You guys recorded the album in Turks and Caicos — was that just paradise, or were you holed up in a studio the entire time?

When I first got there, the last thing I wanted to do was go into a studio. For the first couple of days, l I hung out on the beach and took it all in. Adrian’s been going there for quite some time, so he already knew what we were in for. I was really excited to see what it was like there, and that’s what we did initially, was just kind of hung out. But then after a couple of days of drinking and laying around the beach, I was like, ‘All right, all right, let’s get back to work.’ 

Crazy that you got the itch so quickly — a lot of people could’ve drank on the beach for months?

I guess I have a short attention span. I like feeling productive. If I was there just for the sake of vacation, that’d be in my head. But knowing that I’m there and we’re going to make a record, after a while it’s like, ‘Okay, let’s get to it.’

You played drums on several of the songs as well — how did that work out?

That wasn’t for any other reason than just convenience. It just rolled that way. I’d say, ‘We’ve got this idea, we’ve got a riff — let me just hop behind the drums and try and get something going, some kind of a groove or something for us to play to.’ We developed a lot of this stuff that way. It was all happening at once. And the way that that works — people sometimes seem to wonder how you can pull that off — is that when you set up your recording, most bands will set their drums up, mic it, get a tone, and strike the kit. What we did was leave everything up all the time. So at any given moment, we could go back and replace or fix anything we wanted, including the drums. That’s what really made this work, and that’s why it was possible for me to make the record this way. We were the only two guys involved — we recorded everything ourselves. And what makes that possible is to have that kind of flexibility to go back and amend things. 

So it was as easy as just putting down the guitar and picking up the sticks?

Literally, that easy! Like, in the beginning, maybe we’d make a drum loop or something, and then lay down what I call a form — the form of the song, intro, verse, chorus, whatever it is — and then once there’s a form there, you’ve got something to play to, and really start getting a clear picture of what this is, and then we can add to it. But literally the only way to do that is to have everything mic-ed at the same time. So I’ll be holding the guitar one minute, and 20 minutes later I’ll have a drum stick in my hand.

You guys recorded the album in February of 2020 — right before the whole world went mad. What was it like finishing it up and returning from Turks and Caicos to absolute chaos?

That was very strange — what was even stranger was that as Adrian went back to California, we were texting, Oh shit, countries are getting locked down, people aren’t gonna be allowed to travel unless it’s essential, or whatever. So there was a text thread between the two of us, and [Maiden] were planning on going somewhere, I think New Zealand or somewhere, and we were talking about, Should I just go back to England? What should I do? And recently, Adrian had just gotten back to the states a few weeks ago, and I went to text him on his American phone. And when I pulled it up, the last text was dated a year ago, to the day! It was the creepiest, weirdest thing. The last conversation we had on text was on March 14th, 2020, talking about, What am I going to do?

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Words by Chris Krovatin