Return Of the Mother Head’s Family Reunion
Frontiers Records (Italy)

“I don’t create music unless I’m inspired.” ~ Richie Kotzen

One of the highlights of the NAMM ’08 show was the Fender soundstage that featured the company’s endorsed artist throughout the convention’s three days. To our delight one of those artists was the remarkably gifted Richie Kotzen (Poison, Mr. Big). Kotzen is one of the few artists to be honored by Fender Guitar with not one, but two signature model guitars of which the Kotzen Telecaster has repeatedly been the #1 selling signature model for Fender, Japan. The guitarist/singer has amassed a 30 plus album discography, and at 38 seems to just be reaching his stride. Kotzen proved his chops straightaway as his three-piece took the stage at 12-noon with all the gusto of a midnight gig complete with guitar swagger, a monster rhythm section and Kotzen’s emotionally soulful voice. The show was seven days away from his Viper Room record release party and was loaded with samplings off his new disc Go Faster (or Return of the Mother Head’s Family Reunion outside the US).

Kotzen’s career first took spark 2,300 miles from LA in Reading, PA just outside Philly. He started with the piano at age five then at seven got caught up in the Kiss Army. With relentless practice, he developed serious chops establishing his own style by 15. The Cutting Edge caught up with Kotzen a couple days after NAMM, swapped stories about Philly and dug a little deeper into the Return of the Mother Head’s Family Reunion. “Growing up in Philly had a huge impact on my style,” says Kotzen. “When I was a kid I heard a lot of soul music including Hall and Oats mixed with a large dose of classic rock. I figured out at an early age what I wanted to do and was lucky enough to find an outlet in Guitar Player magazine. It featured a column that Mike Varney wrote called ‘Spot Light” which was perfect for people like me to send in demos. I was lucky enough to get a write up when I was 17 that parlayed into other things.”

There was no Internet in the late ‘80s so Kotzen relocated to the then music industry hot spot LA, signed with Mike Varney’s label Shrapnel and recorded his self-titled instrumental album. “Back then it was very important to live in a place like LA where the music business was,” says Kotzen. “I was able to get a bunch of press on my own and even landed the cover of Guitar World. That was a big break for me.  Then I was asked to join Poison.” Other noted players from Shrapnel followed suit including Paul Gilbert to Mr. Big, Marty Friedman to Megadeth and Jason Becker to David Lee Roth. “We all had things that made us unique,” continues Kotzen “I was a big fan of them all including Tony MacAlpine, Vinnie Moore and Steve Vai. They were all extremely gifted and had something very special in their playing. I was different in that my background was not in classical music. It was classic rock like Zeppelin, Bad Company and The Who.”

At 21, Kotzen replaced guitarist CC DeVille in the platinum selling Poison. It was the break he needed to move to the next level. “They knew who I was from the guitar magazines of the time,” says Kotzen. “My influences were Van Halen, Steve Morse, Jeff Beck, Clapton, Hendrix; anyone that had blues and soul in their playing. When I joined Poison that was the direction they wanted to go. I was not a hired gun; I was brought in as a creative equal. They liked a couple of my song ideas and we created something that none of us could have done on our own in writing and recording Native Tongue (1993).” The record was heavily influenced by Kotzen, showing a greater level of sophistication and selling over a million copies. It produced two top twenty singles which Kotzen co-wrote, Stand and Until You Suffer Some (Fire & Ice). “I had that edge to my playing because I still had a lot to prove and I like the creative process within the band. However, once I was on the road playing songs I wasn’t involved in, I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed that aspect of it. That’s when it became just a job.”

Kotzen was eventually fired from the band when it was discovered he was romantically involved with Deanna Eve, the ex-fiancé of Poison drummer Rikki Rockett. (Kotzen and Eve later married then divorced). “I do remember one night playing at the Allentown fairgrounds,” says Kotzen “At the end of the night Brett would come out to the center triangle in his boxer shorts and do this song. That night, at the end of the song when he put his arms up in the air Bobby (Dall, bassist) and I pulled his shorts down. There he was standing there naked. We all laughed and even Brett thought it was funny – he just wished it wasn’t so cold that night.” Kotzen’s next project formulated who he was as a player when he put together the Mother Head’s Family Reunion. “I’m not just a guitar player,” he says, “I’m a singer and songwriter. To feel complete I wanted to be involved in all three. I was really inspired by the vocal performance on Terence Trent D’Arby’s first record so Mother Head’s spun out of that.”

“I learned the guitar because I wanted to make music,” he continues. “I wanted to create and write songs. I wanted to be good at the guitar but that wasn’t the soul reason - I wanted to be a part of something creative. When I write as a guitar player, I’m hearing melodies and phrases. That’s how you translate the emotion of what you’re hearing or feeling. With Mother Head’s Family Reunion I was thinking in terms of melodies and phrases, not just scales and patterns.” The record over time has become a cult classic eclipsing many of Kotzen’s other solo ventures. “I still put the song ‘A Soul Divine’ off that record in my set list,” says Kotzen. “It’s a song I love to play and never get tired of. He expounds by saying, “When you play with other musicians, you’re communicating. The best musicians are those who listen to what’s going on around him. If one person gets quiet, they all bring it down. You want to respond to the other band members. I want the drummer or bassist to react to what I’m playing and vice versa. That inspires my playing. It’s a conversation between us. You really only get better by responding off each other.”

In 2000 Kotzen was asked to join international supergroup Mr. Big replacing Paul Gilbert. He recorded two albums with the band Get over It and Actual Size. “My playing was very conservative on those two records,” says Kotzen. “I was in a jazz fusion band with Stanley Clark at the same time and that may have had something to do with it. I’m not a big fan of listening to fusion. I don’t mind playing it because it’s like painting with musical notes, but not listening continuously.” After Mr. Big disbanded in 2003, Kotzen returned to working solo. In 2006 came the opportunity to open for the Rolling Stones in Japan on their Bigger Bang tour. Afterwards Kotzen decided to revisit the Mother Head’s concept with Return of the Mother Head’s Family Reunion. Originally released in Japan in July 2007 the title was recently changed to Go Faster for the US. “The last couple of years I’ve been going to the studio and playing everything myself,” says Kotzen. “CDs like Into the Black and Get Up I’m proud of, but with this one I wanted to get together a group of guys that inspired me to bring my songs to another level.”

Kotzen is thrilled with the outcome. “I love the new record,” he says “Every time I make a new record I consider it my best work. It’s the most accurate representation of where I am today. It’s that classic old school rock. The ideas for these songs came in unusual ways; sometimes I hear them in my head as a musical section or lyric. Other times, I’ll be asleep and I’ll dream an idea. If I can wake myself up, I’ll record the idea and revisit it later. ‘You’re Crazy’ and ‘Do It to Yourself’ were written that way - they came to me in my sleep. As a band we stretch out and improvise, a little jamming here and there, but stylistically, it’s along the lines of what I’ve been doing last couple years. Everyone has an impression as to who they are. It has to do with where your passion lies. Ultimately I see myself playing with my trio. That’s where I’m most comfortable. I don’t think about music as to what’s successful, but what makes me happy.”

Website: Richie Kotzen