The Winery DogsThe Winery Dogs
by Dave Schwartz

The term ďsuper groupĒ gets thrown around a lot in the music business.  Popular names and faces get bundled together with the anticipation that notoriety will equate to a payday.  Sometimes it works and other times, well it all looked good on paper. 

Mike Portnoy, Richie Kotzen and Billy Sheehan are The Winery Dogs.  Theyíre not asking to be called a super group, but when you put this much talent into one band itís difficult to avoid the branding.  For me, this trio was an unusual mix.  While Sheehan and Portnoy have made careers out of flashing their amazing talents and being labeled the worldís greatest this or that, Kotzen has enjoyed a quieter success.  He may have somehow even slipped below the radar of some fans.  All that is about to change. 

The Winery Dogs, with roots in hard rock, progressive metal and blues, have just released their debut self-titled album, replete with a classic rock groove.  Some may think thatís unusual-- until you learn more about the men and the journey that created this music.  Billy Sheehan called DaBelly the other day to discuss the new record and the fun they had making it. 

DB:  First of all, thank you for calling in today.  Iíve been looking forward to talking to you about your new album, "The Winery Dogs."

BS:  Yes, weíre real excited about it.  The response that weíve been getting is really great. 

DB:  Why donít you tell me about getting this new band together and recording the album.

BS:  Mike Portnoy and I have been friends for years.  He called me last year and asked if I was interested in doing a band.  So, yeah, I was interested.  Long story short, we tried a few options until Eddie Trunk suggested Richie Kotzen to us.  I was kicking myself, of course, Richie, why didnít I think of that?  Iíve worked and toured and recorded with Richie many times.  I think heís a wonderful guy and a great talent and heís perfect.  

So Mike and I got in touch with him and, bang, there it was.  We got together the first day to sit down in the studio. Just drums/bass/guitar to see what would happen.  Five of the songs on the record had their start that day.  Obviously that was a good omen.  We had good organic chemistry.  Ideas just started popping out, suddenly we were arranging parts of songs and the next thing you know we had several pieces of music.  We got together several more times to write and then began to fine tune.  Finally we decided to start laying down tracks.  And the album you hear is the result of all that. 

DB: The resulting album is excellent.  I love the fact that itís raw in the sense of being honest, not over produced.  All of the instruments come right at you. 

BS:  Well thank you.  Most of it was played pretty live, pretty one take-ish. We like that a lot.  The most successful record that I have ever had came from just sitting down and playing rather than figuring it out, punching in and overdubbing.  The ďEat 'Em and SmileĒ (David Lee Roth) record was like that.  The Mr. Big ďLean In To ItĒ record was like that. 

DB:  Well, again, I love the honesty in the record.  I think some of what is missing from the radio these days is back-to-basics music, songs that sound good because they are good.  Letís just roll some analog tape without the gimmicks. 

BS:  You know, I was an early adopter of the digital tape revolution.  I was a big fan of it but I think the reason I was a big fan was because it was easy.  You can hit a few buttons and have everything.  Itís also easy to mess around with the music after youíve recorded it.  So I like the urgency that digital recording allows you.  But the other side of digital recording is that you can endlessly tweak things forever!  You can squeeze all the life out of a song completely.  The song can be technically perfect and spiritually corrupt.

DB:  It seems like the endless tweaking has been tried with varying degrees of success.

BS:  Itís funny, I donít know too many records that really benefited from that as opposed to so many records that were just sort of thrown together and they work.  They live and they breathe and survive the decades without ever fading away. 

DB:  I wanted to ask about the tracks that you worked on prior to Kotzen coming on board.  I believe that you were working with John Sykes.  Did any of those tracks survive and make it to this album? 

BS:  Thatís correct, none of those tracks were used on this record at all.  John is a wonderful guy and a great player.  It just wasnít perfect chemistry, thatís all.  We split on very good terms and I know that John will be successful no matter what he does.  Mike and I tend to work quickly and make any decisions on the fly.  John was more methodical, he took a more careful approach and it works very well for him. 

The Winery DogsDB:  You and Richie have an obvious chemistry having worked together in Mr. Big for several years.  Iím sure you know each otherís styles and abilities inside and out.  But in the Winery Dogs youíve added the talents of Mike Portnoy to the mix.  How long did it take for the three of you to sit down and click? 

BS:  It was surprisingly quick.  I think it was because we all, especially Mike, he has a real rock background.  I think that side of him is kind of unknown.  Heís mostly a rock player.  You know he did a bunch of tribute bands on the side-- Who tribute; Beatles tribute.  You know that heís spent a lot of years playing progressive music with Dream Theater.  He comes in as a rock player with a hell of a vocabulary.  He has the talent to play almost anything.  And Mike and I benefited from doing a tour together.  We recently went out with several other musicians (Tony MacAlpine, Derek Sherinian) and so it came together really, really fast.  All of us have played long enough to know when the chemistry is going to come together and when itís not, and right away we all felt comfortable. 

DB:  Iíve only heard a few of the tracks from "The Winery Dogs" album, but immediately I noted something often takes a musician a lifetime to learn.  Being a musician isnít just about being able to play, itís also about knowing when to get the hell out of the way.  It seems like, with respect to how skilled you all are on your instruments, you also give each other plenty of room to play.  To me, that respect for the music is what makes the songs. 

BS:  Iím happy that you observed that.  I feel the same way and I know that all of us were interested in the strength of the songs and therefore wanted that strength to come out.  We were very careful when we wrote and recorded this album.  We kind of abandoned ourselves for the sake of the songs and thatís why we knew right away that the chemistry between us was going to be fine.  The musical exchange between us was natural. 

DB:  One of the surprises for me on this album was hearing Richie Kotzen sing.  I know that heís released other material where he has sung, but guess I just missed his work.  Richie has quite a soulful voice.  Thereís almost an R&B flavor to it. 

BS:  I agree, he does have a little bit of that in his voice, which reminds me of Paul Rogers or even some of the really early Dio songs.  You know, before everyone knew him as that metal guy.  He had some soulful stuff in his voice too early on.  I think Richieís voice moves us into a little bit of a bluesier feel.  Itís clichť that everyone always says that they have blues in their roots but having a little bit of that flavor, especially in their vocal is very cool.  You know, like Steve Marriot from Humble Pie, that kind of a vibe.  Iíve had the great fortune of working with many incredible singers and Richie is one of them for sure. 

DB:  I think the mixture of you and Portnoyís with Kotzenís ability to play so many different styles is going to be very interesting. 

BS:  There is a track on the record called ďRegret.Ē  Richie plays piano on it and itís just one of my favorite tracks that I have ever played on.  Mike is playing something simple, but his groove just kicks.  Weíre all looking forward to playing these songs.  We expect to be touring a lot with this album.  Just give us a hot sweaty place filled with people and weíll have a great time. 

DB:  Letís talk a moment about the tour.  Youíve already announced a bunch of shows.  I see the tour opens in Japan, moves to South America and then after a month's break youíre heading to Europe.  Will you be filling that gap with any U.S. dates? 

BS:  They are working on it, but Iím not sure that they will book any dates because August is notoriously slow.  I think that weíll be in America in October.  But donít worry, weíll get here.  The US is the most important market to us being Americanís.  Iím sure weíll be real tight as a band by the time we get to play those shows.

DB:  I know that youíve already released a couple videos on YouTube.  Whatís the first single from the album? 

BS:  I think the single is going to be ďElevate.Ē  Richie sings great on the song by the way.  Our songs arenít that complicated, but we always try to throw a little twist into the mix.  I mean we're musicians and we like to play.  Weíre like everyone else, we get bored when we hear a song thatís just sort of plodding along.  We want to put a little bit of spice in there.

I want to thank Billy Sheehan for allowing this interview.  We originally had scheduled with Richie Kotzen, but when Richie caught a bug, Billy volunteered to step in and give us a call. 

The Winery Dogs open their tour in Osaka, Japan on July 16th.  North American tour dates beginning in October are just being announced.  Check out their social media for full details.    

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