Celebrate the past, shape the future. Collaborations come and go in music. Some are career defining, some expedient. Some can be successful, others just critically acclaimed but wherever they appear on some qualitative scale they invariably enrich our music enjoyment as a ‘coming together’ - a chance to hear the very best, the sum of the parts of multiple talents.
Ditto Smith/Kotzen – an organic coming together of two multi-talented bona fide rock stars both with a shared of love of the past but with eyes firmly set on the now and the future of what classic, blues influenced hard rock could and should be.
In Adrian Smith the band has what many rock fans see as the commercial face and fingers, of one of the greatest metal bands of all time and arguably Britain’s most successful, Iron Maiden. Involved in all but 3 of their 16 studio albums to date and the writer of fan favourites like ‘Wasted Years’ ‘2 Minutes To Midnight’, ‘The Evil That Men Do’ and ‘The Wicker Man’. A veteran of 4 solo albums where we also get to hear his vocal chops (and two appearances on Bruce Dickinson’s later output), Smith is a savvy musician – bred on the happy-go-lucky streets of London’s East End and introduced to the audiences of the world by years of back-breaking touring, recording album deadlines and driven by a desire to be a master of his craft and a fitting disciple of his musical heroes from the 70s rock scene.
Richie Kotzen, no stranger to growing up in front of huge audiences in huge bands, trod a different path to virtuosity – his guitar brilliance plucking him from obscurity to be one of the chosen few that Shrapnel Records’ Mike Varney chose to represent the very best of the very best in guitar players of the ‘80s. Born in Reading, Pennsylvania but learning his musical chops from the outskirts of Philly and influenced by the funk/soul fusion of the city, Richie’s path to playing rock guitar was due to KISS and, in a strange quirk, his formative first concert experience was Iron Maiden (yes, with Smith!) on the mammoth World Slavery Tour in 1985 at Allen Town Fairgrounds, PA .
Fast forward epic world tours, platinum albums, super groups, solo projects, departures, returns, Grammy awards, signature guitars, leftfield collaborations, marriage, parentage, anniversaries and friendships until the draw for musicians of the fringe of LA brought Adrian Smith & Family to the environs populated by The Kotzens and a ready melange of musicians and socialites.
Bit by bit, a nod in a restaurant became a chat whilst buying coffee, a bottle of wine over a dinner and then the magic started. Richie takes up the story: “The first time we actually jammed together was at his house in LA. I’d been invited to the get together…and we just played for hours…and really hit it off! Then we just got together whenever he was back in LA and threw some ideas around. From that it just evolved. There was no pressure, it was organic and it just took a natural course until we felt we really had something and that’s when we headed to Turks & Caicos…”
As Adrian adds, “We did the writing over a couple of years but once we thought about an album, well, it came together so quickly, then we both just felt that we had to do this, that it was important because we both felt so strongly about the music. We didn’t get that much of a holiday I seem to remember – but it was worth it!”
The house named Windermere in the Providenciales part of Turks & Caicos might never become as notorious as AIR in Montserrat or even Golden Eye in Jamaica but as the realisation of a band called simply Smith/Kotzen and an eponymous debut album it will always be the spiritual home for 11 tracks - 9 of which made the running order – that provide a joyous rock soundtrack to what would soon become a challenging time, globally. Indeed, as they both left the island to return to LA and Adrian eventually heading east back to Britain, no-one was thinking that such fruitful, face to face collaborations would become almost impossible for at least a year.
Sitting with the album some five and a half thousand miles apart, the now regular chats between them veered onto the subject of: could we do anything better? Is it as good as it could be? And then emerged the idea of a couple of guests to just, well, you know…
Richie, who had handled drum parts thus far suggested that some extra flair on certain tracks might not go amiss and his first phone call was to a man who easily made his Top 5 ‘Drummers list’, Tal Bergman. Richie takes up the story:
“I met Tal back in 1996 when we played together for the first time as part of the house band for the Los Angeles Sunset Strip venue ‘Billboard Live’.
From there we kept in touch and worked together in various situations including the tour I opened for The Rolling Stones in Japan back in 2006.
Once invited, Tal came in and nailed it with very little discussion… just a few phone calls I seem to remember! Thinking about it, I’ve always been a fan of the school that focuses less on talk and more on action and that fits Tal perfectly! Adrian agrees, “He was the perfect decision to add something extra to those 3 tracks. He just brings another vibe I think and he pretty much nailed everything in one take which really shows how good a drummer he is – and a pleasure to work with.”
If Richie had a plan and a vision of how certain tracks could sound with a different player then so too did Adrian for the song, ‘Solar Fire’. “My first thought was: this is a job for Nicko! The track has a Pat Travers feel to it and I was a fan, as is Richie so we made the call to his pre-Maiden drummer, Nicko McBrain!! I knew he’d smash it. He’s a powerhouse drummer and he just went and put his identity and character all over it – as I hoped he would! When he’d done the track he asked what we thought of it and I just said, Nicko you put your stamp on it and kicked it right up the ass!” He liked that.
So, with an album ‘in the can’ plus with tracks to spare, the titular pair agreed management terms with Phantom Music Management for the world and shopped the record in unmastered form landing two major offers and liking the look of BMG out of London. From then on Covid restrictions decided that remote working was the order of the day and the team vowed not to let it be an obstacle to their ambitions for the project.
The album was co-produced by Richie & Adrian – a decision they made pretty quickly together. “After the first couple of recordings it was obvious we had a vibe and a sound so it just didn’t feel necessary to bring anyone else in” recalls Richie. “The music was pretty much writing itself and it felt a lot like it was producing itself too, so we just let it flow! “Richie has produced about 20 solo albums I think” notes Adrian “and I’m no stranger to a control room in a studio so we took the view that no one knows the sound we want or the material better than us, so let’s just keep heading towards our vision together.”
Long-time friend of Adrian, Kevin Shirley was so impressed with the album that he offered immediately to mix it at his Caveman Studio in Sydney, Australia and the resulting work then found its way to the desk and ears of Ryan Smith of Sterling Sound to be mastered back in Nashville, TN, USA.
Both a photo-shoot and a video shoot were planned and executed on both sides of the Atlantic with the resulting effort a triumph of never accepting that something can’t be done if you want it badly enough.
2021 will go down as the public birth of Smith/Kotzen against a backdrop no one wanted, or to be frank, expected when the then two sometime Angelenos first thought about making music – both on record and, naturally, on stage together.
The album is about creating classic, timeless music to distract people from the day-to-day grind. It’s joyous, it’s fun and it’s consummate – played by kindred spirits for the benefit of all who might hear it.
In terms of content away from the one, two shot of lead tracks “Taking My Chances” and “Running” the album unashamedly nods back to some 70’s style blues rock workouts. “There’s a track called ‘Scars’ mentions Adrian, “that has a kinda dreamy intro and then comes in heavy, good old 70’s rock and fun to do. Plus there’s a song entitled ‘Glory Road’ which has got a great kinda swagger to it – telling a story of how to make it in a band.” Richie agrees with the 70’s vibe that also comes out in a song called ‘Some People’ - as he tells it: “It just has a groove that I love which reminds me of the music I listened to growing up – the bands had those big grooves with a lot of space. Space where the song could relax and allow the lyric to be delivered. I think it’s evocative of those great yesteryear songs.”
“Another track that haunted me, at least for a while, was “I Wanna Stay” – it was the song that took the longest of all to realise on the record – I’d wake up every morning with this melody in my head and finally we just nailed it. We kind of had to leave it on a back-burner, let it marinate a little and then it figured itself out. I just love the way it turned out.”
As for the future… well, it’s anyone’s guess right now but whilst no one is able to play live there’s an unfulfilled ambition to hook up with a couple of other musicians and get Smith/Kotzen on a stage somewhere to ape the heritage and bands it pays tribute to.
As Adrian notes: “I really hope we can take these songs on the road and give them a good kicking about. I think people will really enjoy them.”
“When the time is right, and it’s safe” adds Richie, “we’ll have a conversation about some players – male or female – that will help us take this to the next level and bring the music to the stage. We both want to play live, we both miss it terribly actually. Before all this stuff happened I said I was ready to take a break from the road – but I’m sure as hell ready to go now!”
Amen to that.